The tale of the Twitter abuse of Olympic diver Tom Daley has dominated social media today. Daley, who came a disappointing fourth along with synchronised diving partner Pete Waterfield in their event yesterday, was subjected to abuse, then apologies, then more abuse by a Twitter user. This morning, Dorset police said they had arrested a 17-year-old in a guest house in Weymouth for “malicious communications”.
I genuinely don’t want to get into the arguments on the specifics of this case, as the teenager hasn’t been charged, so I think we need to actually see what transpires before taking a definite position.
The above sentence is 166 characters, and therefore unsuitable for Twitter. But I wonder is the sentiment incompatible too?
It feels incredibly fogeyish to complain about the pace inflicted on us by social media, but I still think it’s a point worth making. The instant nature of the medium seems sometimes to affect how we think: we have to rush to judgment before the story passes us by. We have to offer our approval, show our disdain, and most worryingly, we have to demand action.
The first “Twitter mob” I can remember was the case of Jan Moir’s distasteful Daily Mail article on the circumstances of the death of Boyzone star Stephen Gately. Thousands tweeted their disapproval. 25,000 registered complaints with the Press Complaints Commission. The commission refused to censure Moir. Twitter again exploded in outrage.
Two-and-a-half years on, that looks mild. In the past year, we’ve seen examples of people getting arrested for saying stupid, crass, offensive things on social media — Azhar Ahmed insulting soldiers on Facebook, Liam Stacey wishing Fabrice Muamba dead and then descending into racist abuse. In the case of Stacey, hundreds of people reported him to the police, and there was barely contained glee when he was arrested and subsequently jailed.
I worry that this will become the norm: Man says nasty thing on the internet, nice people get upset by nasty thing, nice people demand something be done about nasty thing, police pursue easy conviction (all the evidence is online after all, and there are a million willing witnesses), nasty man gets convicted, and everybody slaps each other on the back for having done their bit. The thrill of active netizenship.
This could end up corrosive: increasingly narrowing the online social sphere so it is eventually only available to the articulate and right-thinking, and fools will suffer real-world punishment.
It doesn’t feel much like free speech. We need to start thinking about better ways of dealing with hurtful, crass speech.
Padraig Reidy is news editor at Index on Censorship