31 July 2012
Trolling visualised: Top 150 words from 2051 tweets by @Rileyy_69. Credit: Adrian Short/Headline Data
I’m not going to address the case of @Rileyy_69 directly. A 17-year-old from Weymouth has been arrested in connection with tweets sent from that account to the Olympic diver Tom Daley. Take a look at the last 2000-odd tweets on that account and decide for yourself.
So let’s talk about limits and responses.
I’m not an advocate of absolute free speech. It’s an attractive ideal but one that permits genuine harm in the name of freedom. We must do our utmost to protect everyday conversation, bad jokes, religious ideas, political speech and artistic expresssion while protecting individuals and groups from threats, intimidation and abuse. There will always be cases where the law gets it wrong because it’s a crude device to constrain intolerable behaviour not a panacea for all social and individual ills.
So where to draw the line? For me, it’s at words intended to hurt, to disrupt and to demean, absent of any higher intention. Anyone who doubts the power of words has never said or heard “I love you” or read any history. The pen by itself might not be mightier than the sword but words express ideas that inspire actions. Without language we would be no more than our ape-like ancestors.
You don’t have to go far to see the line being crossed. When a black councillor in the predominantly-white Sutton borough led a protest against golly dolls being sold on the high street, many local residents thought he was overreacting. But when a commenter on the local newspaper website changed his name from Councillor Lester Holloway to Councillor Jester Gollyaway it’s clear that they were trying to demean and punish him for expressing a view they didn’t share. This diminished the community’s freedom to debate a public policy issue that aroused strong feelings on both sides. When the price of having a view is racist abuse, many will step away from the debate leaving the floor to those prepared to wield hatred rather than argument.
A couple of miles up the road, a Muslim group has made a planning application to open a mosque in Worcester Park town centre. This has generated heated debate and campaigning locally, some of it focussing on the practical matters of traffic congestion and parking, some of it tinged with a more xenophobic slant. But whatever you think about the parking, Muslims or Islam, it can’t be acceptable to threaten to burn the mosque down. Is this “banter”, hyperbole or a credible threat? We can’t say for certain looking at it in isolation but many local Muslims must feel less safe because of it.
Some people have drawn parallels between last night’s twitterstorm and the prosecution of Paul Chambers in the so-called Twitter joke trial. Thankfully, the law itself has now recognised that Chambers’ tweet was intended as a harmless joke and therefore legal. For me, Chambers hyperbolic statement that he would “blow [the airport] sky high” shows no intention or serious potential to hurt, disrupt or demean anyone. Interestingly, it wasn’t considered a credible threat by the airport itself but it was obliged to report the tweet to the police as a matter of routine. From there, common sense and sound judgement went out the window. Normality has now been restored, at a price.
The Chambers judgment does not make all tweets or other speech legal. It doesn’t legalise threats, abuse or harassment. I can see no parallel between Chambers’ joke and tweets or other speech directed at individuals with the primary aim of causing offence to them and outrage among others. Context is key. Banter among friends can look highly offensive taken in isolation. Outside a specific relationship, the same words might be the grossest abuse. Ironically, words never speak for themselves. Wise laws and rules avoid prohibiting specific words and phrases. Wise enforcement always considers whether the likely and potential harm that could be caused by enforcement outweighs the benefits. In England and Wales, this common sense approach is encoded in the Crown Prosecution Service’s two-stage test for bringing a prosecution: Even if there’s enough evidence to make a conviction likely, would a prosecution be in the public interest? We might not always agree with the conclusion to this question but we can be thankful that it’s always asked.
So let’s always proceed with caution when trying to limit speech. We must be mindful that we really understand what was said in total, and in context. We must form a sound view of what was intended and what the effects of that speech were. We must be aware of the complex power dynamics between people and groups in society and not allow regulation of speech to become another tool to perpetuate privilege. (The power dynamic between @Rileyy_69 and Tom Daley is worthy of its own article.) We must know that we cannot make people good by act of Parliament but also that we can allow individual lives and community life to become intolerable through inaction where action is required. Most of all, even and especially in the absence of good laws, sensible rules and wise enforcement, we should try as individuals to let our own words generate more light than heat.
Adrian Short works to get people the information they need, when they need it, in a way that they can understand.