Twitter posts

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What’s happening? Hatred in 140 characters or less

By Stephanie Carbone

Every tweet starts the same by asking: What’s happening? This exploding form of social media and forum for thoughts asks you one simple question and within seconds, your ideas are out there for the world to access and read. In a society where freedom of expression is prioritised and where the use of social media is so prevalent, Twitter has come to play a very important role. It not only allows people to broadcast information but more importantly, it allows everyday people like you and I to play a more active part in society.[1] With this significant creation, however, comes significant challenges. Online abuse, often referred to as ‘Cyberbullying’, comes in several forms such as defamatory blog posts or campaigns of harassment, and this also includes hate speech through social media.[2] However, cyberbullying has become child’s play in comparison to the threats and rapid use of hate speech via Twitter, begging the question: where do we draw the line between freedom of expression and malicious hatred?

Currently, the Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) has outlined in their guidelines that cases involving communications through social media can be prosecuted under a number of pieces of legislation, depending on the circumstances. These include the Protection from Harassment Act 1997, Contempt of Court Act 1981, Criminal Justice Act 2003, Malicious Communications Act 1988 and the Communications Act 2003, amongst others.[3] However, the fear of prosecution has not done much to deter individuals from sending out information instantaneously through Twitter. In fact, it has even gone so far as being argued that in allowing such hate speech to remain on their newsfeed, Twitter is acting as an accomplice, ‘…offering a highway for racists and anti-Semites’.[4]

Despite the guidelines set out by the CPS, it is evident, through the outcome of several incidents, that it is not at all clear what is deemed to be permissible and what is not.  Moreover, the line between the responsibilities of the individual who posts on social media versus the operator of the social media platform itself is even less clear.[5] Currently, it is difficult to determine who is to be held culpable for these malicious tweets.

The consequences of such ‘tweets’ are often severe.  For example, in April 2012, former Sheffield United striker Ched Evans was convicted of raping a woman, who was 19 years old at the time of the incident.[6] Anonymity to victims is guaranteed under Section 1 of the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992 but as of November 2012, there were over 6,000 postings reported on Twitter not only revealing the victim’s identity but furthermore, posts of messages of abuse towards her including branding her as a ‘f****** liar’.[7] While 21 arrests were made, 10 of which resulted in prosecutions, the victim had to be given a new identity and was forced to relocate due to the seriousness of the abuse she had experienced.[8] However, the abuse didn’t only involve members of the public, Evans’ teammate Connor Brown also took to Twitter to show his support for Evans by referring to the victim as a ‘slag’ who was just trying to get money and take advantage of the situation.[9]

According to various news reports and an interview her father had given anonymously, the victim has had to move five times in the past few years because of the vicious hate speech on social media and in addition, as a result of Evans’ supporters holding her responsible for the loss of his career.[10]

It is indisputable that the accessibility and durability of ‘tweets’ increases the risk that words spoken can easily come to the attention of a wider range of people.[11] Twitter, with its facility to ‘retweet’ a message or ‘hashtag’ a topic, allowing others discussing the same thing to view all messages related to it, has taken the instant accessibility of social media to a level that has completely spiralled out of control. Despite the possibility of criminal responsibility, in reality the criminal justice authorities appear to have little control.  Not enough is being done for victims of hate speech. The victim of Ched Evans had to endure a graphic trial and is still being forced to live life ‘on the run’ because she became a victim of a ‘Twitter’ war against her.[12]

The intention behind Article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights was that individuals enjoyed the freedom to hold opinions and to receive and impart information and ideas without interference from public authorities, and yet at the same time the Article includes duties and responsibilities intended to protect the reputation and rights of others.[13]

Currently, with regards to social media, the law appears to be struggling with striking the right balance between freedom of expression and hate speech, whilst arguably the European Court of Human Rights (ECtHR) takes the default position of applying existing Art.10 jurisprudence on freedom of expression, too liberally.[14]

It would seem that policy makers and other relevant actors do not fully appreciate the extent to which Twitter has the potential for wide reaching detrimental effects on members of society.

There is often a tendency to trivialise the impact of ‘tweets’ on Twitter.  For example, as the Prime Minister David Cameron said in a 2009 radio interview ‘The trouble with Twitter, the instantness of it – too many twits might make a twat’.[15] The Prime Minister’s comment represents a classic example of the perception of Twitter as trivial, as evidenced by the laughs he exchanges with the interviewer after his remark. Yet, he goes on to say how being unable to convey a message in 140 characters or less can be problematic and seems to be implying that a tweet can be a good test for those who express themselves successfully to their audience.[16]

It is not quite clear what the Prime Minister’s stance is on the use of Twitter given these conflicting statements. What is evident, however, is that journalists seemed to have targeted this interview in the same way that he claims politicians tweets can be attacked. However, because he is not a Twitter user, he seems to be saying that he is somehow exempt from the effects of it, which he obviously is not, as evidenced by the aftermath of the interview. The inconsistencies in his views on Twitter may serve to further underplay the damaging impact wreaked by Twitter posts particularly for those, such as victims of hate speech, who are desperately seeking clarification on the repercussions for those who use social media for the purposes of spreading hatred.

The freedom to express your thoughts, especially through social media, is a right and a privilege enjoyed in many places throughout the world. However, currently, some Tweeters are taking advantage of it and there appears to be little consistency about what is acceptable. For example, Liam Stacey, a university student, received a jail sentence for racist and offensive comments against footballer Fabrice Mumba.[17] Yet the famous footballer Daniel Thomas did not face any criminal charges for his homophobic Tweet about Olympic Diver Tom Daley because, in part, it was not intended for wide circulation. It was reported by Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecution at the time, that because the tweet was not ‘grossly offensive’ and because Thomas had taken ‘reasonably’ swift action to remove the post, criminal charges were not necessary in this instance, which seems questionable given the nature of his post.[18]

More must be done on all fronts in educating individuals on what hate speech is and the potential impact of hate speech through malicious Tweets, including the potential of facing criminal charges. Society has adopted a very dangerous approach towards Twitter. The tendency to treat it as something trivial needs to be resisted and its contribution to public debate needs to be taken more seriously.[19]

Academic Paul Bernal makes an excellent point when saying: “There is a lot of trivia on Twitter but that does not mean that Twitter itself is trivial.”[20] Attitudes towards Twitter must change, because as it stands, the largely unfettered right to freedom of expression on social media is creating more victims and leaving them largely without recourse to justice and remedies.

References

Agate, J. and Ledward, J. (2013), “Social media: how the net is closing in on cyber

bullies”, Entertainment Law Review, 24(8), pp. 263-268.

Bernal, P. (2014), “A defence of responsible tweeting”, Communications Law, 19(1), pp.

12-19.

Rowbottom, J. (2014), “In the shadow of the big media: freedom of expression,

participation and the production of knowledge online”, Public Law, Jul, pp. 491-

Rowbottom, J. (2012), “To Rant, Vent and Converse: Protecting Low Level Digital

Speech”, Cambridge Law Journal, 71(2), pp. 355-383.

Scaife, L (2013), “The interrelationship of platform providers and users in the regulation

of Twitter and offensive speech – is there a right to be offensive and offended at

content?”, Communications Law, 18(4), pp. 128-134.

European Convention on Human Rights

Absolute Radio, “David Cameron on Twitter”, YouTube, 29 July 2009,

Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yELHemcQn10,

[Accessed April 8, 2015].

BBC, “Ched Evans: Nine admit naming rape victim on social media”, Available at

http://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-north-east-wales-20207408, [Accessed January 2, 2015].

Crown Prosecution Service, “Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications

sent via social media”, Available at

http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/a_to_c/communications_sent_via_social_media/,

[Accessed December 27, 2014].

Daily Mirror, “‘Money grabbing little tramp’: Ched Evans’ team-mate in foul-mouthed

Twitter rant after rape conviction”, Available athttp://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/ched-evans-team-mate-brands-victim-801734, [Accessed December 27, 2014].

The Guardian, “Ched Evans’s rape victim had to change name and move five times, says father”, Available at http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/dec/28/ched-evans-rape-victim-change-name-move-house-father, [Accessed December 27, 2014].

The Guardian, “Footballer will not face charges over abusive Tom Daley tweet”,

Available at http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/sep/20/footballer-tom-daley-tweet, [Accessed January 4, 2015].

The Guardian, “Sweary Cameron illustrates dangers of informal interview”, Available at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2009/jul/29/cameron-swearing-interview, [Accessed January 4, 2015].

The Independent, “Ched Evans rape victim named by Twitter trolls”, Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/ched-evans-rape-victim-named-by-twitter-trolls-9807627.html, [Accessed December 27, 2014].

 

 

 

 

[1] Bernal, P. (2014), “A defence of responsible tweeting”, Communications Law, 19(1), p. 12.

[2] Agate, J. and Ledward, J. (2013), “Social media: how the net is closing in on cyber bullies”, Entertainment Law Review, 24(8), p. 263.

[3] Crown Prosecution Service, “Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media”, Available at http://www.cps.gov.uk/legal/a_to_c/communications_sent_via_social_media/, [Accessed December 27, 2014].

[4] Scaife, L (2013), “The interrelationship of platform providers and users in the regulation of Twitter and offensive speech – is there a right to be offensive and offended at content?”, Communications Law, 18(4), p. 131.

[5] See Agate & Ledward (2013), n. 2, p. 263.

[6] The Independent, “Ched Evans rape victim named by Twitter trolls”, Available at http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/crime/ched-evans-rape-victim-named-by-twitter-trolls-9807627.html, [Accessed December 27, 2014].

[7] See Agate & Ledward (2013), n. 2, p. 265.; Ibid.

[8] See Agate & Ledward (2013), n. 2, p. 265.

[9] Daily Mirror, “‘Money grabbing little tramp’: Ched Evans’ team-mate in foul-mouthed Twitter rant after rape conviction”, Available athttp://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/ched-evans-team-mate-brands-victim-801734, [Accessed December 27, 2014].

[10] The Guardian, “Ched Evans’s rape victim had to change name and move five times, says father”, Available at http://www.theguardian.com/football/2014/dec/28/ched-evans-rape-victim-change-name-move-house-father, [Accessed December 27, 2014].; BBC, “Ched Evans: Nine admit naming rape victim on social media”, Available athttp://www.bbc.com/news/uk-wales-north-east-wales-20207408, [Accessed January 2, 2015].

[11]Rowbottom, J. (2012), “To Rant, Vent and Converse: Protecting Low Level Digital Speech”, Cambridge Law Journal, 71(2), pp. 366–368.; Rowbottom, J. (2014), “In the shadow of the big media: freedom of expression, participation and the production of knowledge online”, Public Law, Jul, p. 492.

[12] See The Guardian, n. 9.

[13] European Convention on Human Rights, Article 10.

[14] See Rowbottom (2014), n. 10, p. 492.

[15] The Guardian, “Sweary Cameron illustrates dangers of informal interview”, Available at http://www.theguardian.com/politics/blog/2009/jul/29/cameron-swearing-interview, [Accessed January 4, 2015].; See Bernal (2014), n. 1, p. 15.

[16] Absolute Radio, “David Cameron on Twitter”, YouTube, 29 July 2009, Available at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yELHemcQn10, [Accessed April 8, 2015].

[17] See Agate & Ledward (2013), n. 2, p. 264.; See Agate & Ledward (2013), n. 4, p. 267.

[18] The Guardian, “Footballer will not face charges over abusive Tom Daley tweet”, Available at http://www.theguardian.com/technology/2012/sep/20/footballer-tom-daley-tweet, [Accessed January 4, 2015].

[19] See Bernal (2014), n. 1, p. 16.

[20] Ibid.

 

Stephanie Carbone

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