After viewing some of the responses to my article on Tom Daley and Twitter trolls, I have been thinking some more about this issue, and the wider problem of people posting offensive and threatening things online.
Many responders felt that I was too lenient on @Rileyy_69, when I said that “This appears to be the kind of outburst that is commonplace in a noisy, modern, and connected society.”
— UrsulaWJ (@UrsulaWJ) July 31, 2012
In their view, the level of abuse was not an ‘outburst’ as I put it, but something more sustained. The same person posted threatening videos on YouTube, and the invective he posted on twitter was not limited to the Daley tweets on the day in question. If this behaviour is systematic rather than a heat-of-the-moment slip of the finger, then it should be treated as threatening behaviour. Or so the argument goes.
— Cristen (@cristencaine) July 31, 2012
Others pointed to the specificity of the threats. Tom Daley’s username was mentioned in some of the tweets, meaning he would be aware of them. This takes the comments out of the realm of idle pub-style banter, and turns them into a specific threat. Very different from “the referee should be shot for that decision” comments, or “hang the bankers” political discourse. And because it was aimed at a person, not a building, one cannot draw a direct comparison with the celebrated Paul Chambers #TwitterJokeTrial tweeting.
I accept both these points. However, the fact that the police have become involved in the way they have still makes me uneasy. Having read what @Rileyy_69 posted, his stream of messages appear to me to be more the ravings of a frustrated youth. They read like the pathetic posturing of a wannabe gangsta. It is important to note that many of the most violent tweets directed at Daley and his others were in response to the humiliation he was receiving at the hands of the twitter mob. (Having said that, it is equally important to note that he had also been tweeting deeply unpleasant messages long before Tom Daley missed out on a synchronised diving medal). But the Internet is full of this kind of misanthropy, and I am left with the sense that this person has only been pursued by the police because he abused someone famous.
Question on the @TomDaley1994 twitter troll: Would the issue have been different if he had abused Dwain Chambers instead?
— robertsharp59 (@robertsharp59) July 31, 2012
I also stand by my concept of “remote” harassment – there is surely a difference between this kind of abuse and the bullying of someone you know and to whom you are already in close proximity. This context seems to me to be important in determining when the police become involved.
This issue also points to a failure of Twitter, both the interface and the company. @Rileyy_69’s tweets clearly fall foul of Twitters Terms of Service. Why did no-one report his abuse and why was he not barred from the service? This would have cauterised the flow of invective long before Tom Daley took to the diving board, and long before the Devon Police arrived at @Rileyy_69’s house to begin questioning.
Some people have claimed that this is not a free speech issue, because offline laws have been broken.
— Maggie Dods (@MagDods) July 31, 2012
Unfortunately, things are not so clear cut. Twitter is an international tool and the way it is used here impacts how it is used overseas. Leading into my Al Jazeera interview last month, the channel highlighted some international examples, including Hamza Kashgari who tweeted a dialogue with the prophet Mohammed, a blasphemous act in Saudi Arabia. If the line is simply drawn at “well, he broke a law” then that gives carte blanche to foreign government to censor social networks at will. Messages on Twitter are not the same as the same message said in real life or even in a video or on TV. The context of the message and the medium is important here. A tweet is a new kind of speech act. Laws at home abroad do not recognise this, but they should.
Finally, the Tom Daley case makes me uneasy because it fits so neatly into a pattern which includes Paul Chambers, but also people like Azar Ahmed who was prosecuted for saying unpleasant things about British soldiers, in what was clearly an example of political speech.
Yes, free speech is a qualified right. Yes, one has to draw the line somewhere, and maybe @Rileyy_69 crossed that line. But I fear that this latest investigation reinforces the worrying pattern established by these earlier cases, and we may end up somewhere illiberal as a result.