In #PartOne of ‘7 Years Of Twitter’, we discussed the social media website has been a force for good, revolutionising not just communication and news, but people’s lives; #PartTwo takes a look at the tool’s flaws from banal waffle to media law to vicious trolls.
Despite its use as a source of news and a ‘global watercooler’, it’s easy to be scathing of the website. After all, most of its content is fairly banal, mundane and/or conceited; there are silly trending hashtags like #ThoughtsInBed, #Lifedilemmas and #MentionSomeoneImportantForYou; idle chatter between friends ;and yes, people talking about what they had for breakfast (sometimes with the added bonus of photos).
In fact, a 2009 study of Twitter found out that 40% of tweets were pointless babble – ‘I am eating a sandwich now’ – and 38% to be conversational, making Twitter primarily a site of self-promotion and instant messaging. Indeed, people now share their most personal intimate details on it from engagement pictures, pregnancy announcements and the death of loved ones with their peers; people’s private lives have now manifested into the public sphere.
Of course, this babble is not a ‘bad’ aspect of Twitter; everyone has the right to use it the way they want – and such babble has lead to vast success for some such as Canadian ‘Mom’ Kelly Oxford, whose tweeting got her a published book of essays, a feature script and two sold pilots for television shows; and Justin Halpern, who created a Twitter feed based on his Dad’s musing titled @ShitMyDaysSays which became a bestselling book and a situational comedy. It does, nonetheless, put to bed the idea that Twitter is primarily a source of news (a look at the top ten most popular accounts, which include Bieber, Rihanna and Kim Kardashian correlates with such an assertion)
A much larger issues, however, is how Twitter is struggling to deal with its increasing role as a public media company rather than a messaging one and how has lead to frequent brushes with the law. Indeed, a study last year showed that “65% of respondents, and they were mainly young people, had no idea of the legal consequences of going online.”
65% of respondents, and they were mainly young people, had no idea of the legal consequences of going online
The Twitter Joke Trial is perhaps the most famous of such occasions. Back in January 2010, Paul Chambers – a 27 year-old man from Doncaster – sent a tweet reading “Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit… otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”. The tweet was sent during a period of snow which had closed the airport a week before Chambers were due to fly out.
Chambers was later arrested for the tweet and was convicted of sending “a message of a menacing character”. He was fined £385 and ordered to pay £600 costs. Chambers’ conviction – with support from celebrities such as Al Murray, Stephen Fry and 4,000 retweeters – was eventually quashed after a second High Court appeal, with many believing common sense has prevailed.
Libel has also lead to problems; last year, a Newsnight programme accused an unnamed Conservative peer of being a paedophile. The programme led to a guessing game on Twitter with many accusing Lord McAlpine of the crime; the report soon turned out to be false, thus many tweeters had made defamatory allegations against the peer, including Sally Bercow who is still being taken to court over her tweet.
Another infamous case was that of Ryan Giggs who attempted to take to court an unamed tweeter after they stated that a Sun article titled ‘Footie Star’s affair with Big Brother’s Imogen Thomas’ was about the Welsh football player. An injunction over the affair meant the footballer was banned from being named in the press, Giggs therefore felt the tweeter was in contempt of the law and asked Twitter for the account’s details; tweeters responded with ‘safety in numbers’ with many consequently naming Giggs until it became common knowledge. The moral of this story; don’t take on the Twitter Mob.
In both cases – McAlpine who had done nothing wrong; Giggs who had done alot wrong – tweeters had broken the law; a tweet is exactly the same as publishing a false/illegal/damaging article in a newspaper. Generally, most will be safe, but it shows how Twitter and its users are struggling with issues of free speech.
In fact, Twitter said in January that it had received 1,009 requests from governments around the world in 2012, up from 849 in 2011. It has also has a problem of large-scale instances of hate speech on the website with over 20,00 “hate-spewing” hashtags and handles – one of the infamous ones being #cutforbieber – with filters over such content where it is illegal.
Freedom of Expression vs. Hate speech & the law: as Twitter continues to grow, it has some challenging issues ahead.
Trolls, trolls, trolls. The ability to communicate with those outside of your social circle – from Justin Bieber to the Pope to Barack Obama to Robert Peston – is so key to why so many have embraced Twitter.
Unfortunately, some people have taken this new-fangled ability the wrong way with the ever-increasing proliferation of internet trolls; those men and women who post inflammatory or provactaive content, normally to harrass or get an emotional response from the reader(s).
While alot of this ‘trolling’ can be fairly innocuous and fun – perhaps part and parcel of certain jobs; see here the response to George Osborne’s twitter debut last Wednesday – it often verges on the offensive, derogatory and disgusting with death threats, personal jibes and intimidating remarks about friends and family.
Adele, Helen Skelton, Tom Daley, Beth Tweedle, Stan Collymore, The Saturdays, Kirstie Allsopp, Liam Payne, Michelle Heaton, Richard Bacon, Stephen Fry, Miranda Hart, Gary Barlow and Dani Harmer are just a few celebrities who have received varying levels of abuse from trolls on this side of the pond.
The incidents of Gary Barlow and Tom Daley were particularly vile with both mocked over extremely personal and emotional moments in their lives; the stillbirth of his baby Poppy and the death of his father from cancer respectively.
These incidents have become more widespread and known, with an increasing number of trolls punished, even jailed , for these sick jokes – still a practice more commonplace on Facebook than Twitter. One of such people is Liam Stacey who posted offensive and racist comments about Fabrice Muamba while he had collapsed during a FA Cup match last year.
Stacey served time in jail for his tweet, under the 2003 Communications Act 2003 which governs the internet, email, mobile phone calls and text messaging, stating it is an crime to send messages that are “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”
Stacey is just one of many who has ‘ruined’ their life prospects through Twitter. A US congressman, Anthony Weiner, also used the social media website to publicly send a photo of his genitalia to a female college student; releasing the mistake, the tweet was deleted, but when the case was further investigated, Weiner had to admit that he has ‘sexted’ suggestive pictures to several other women and eventually resigned.
Others include Paraskevi Papachristou, a Greek triple jumper, was banned from competing in the 2012 Olympics after an offensive tweet while the US actor and stand-up comedian Gilbert Gottfried was sacked after tweeting – “I was talking to my Japanese real estate agent. I said ‘is there a school in this area?’ She said ‘not now, but just wait’ – not soon after the 2011 tsunami.
Only days ago, the tweeter Adria Richards – a women who tweeted a picture of men who had been making sexist jokes at a developer conference (both were escorted out; one later fired) – was sacked for the manner she went about complaining by “publicly shaming the offenders”.
One of the worst cases of publicly shaming was during the trial of footballer Ched Evans; he was convicted of rape in April 2012, with several people naming the victim of the attack with insults of “crying rape” and “money-grabbing”. Seven men and two women were eventually fined; the Twitter Mob not always a force of good then.
Whether any of this people deserved their respective punishments is debatable (except in the last case; each one probably worth of an article in itself), but it does reveal the murky side of Twitter – its informal and casual format making it seem like people should be able to say what people would happily say in homes, pubs and workplaces all around the world, but when published on the public domain of the internet, these 140 characters can become both extremely foolish and a criminal offence.
In the world of Twitter, a moment of madness can tarnish a lifetime.