The week Twitter became a liability

Twitter has been in the news quite a lot this last week here in the UK. First, we were presented with the Twitter Joke trial, where accountant Paul Chambers lost an appeal and was fined £2,000 GBP for posting a threatening message on Twitter, or more accurately, he posted a joke on Twitter and the Crown Prosecution Service and a couple of judges demonstrated their lack of a sense of humour. Then a Tory councillor was arrested for tweeting that he would like someone to stone to death journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown. And to top up the Twitter week (should that be a Tweek?) the Daily Mail published a nasty hatchet job about Sarah Baskerville, a civil servant who dares to tweet about her personal life, a story that has been picked up by The Independent.

The tweeting masses have not taken this lightly (perhaps with the exception of the Tory councillor). During the week the hashtag in support of Paul Chambers, #IamSpartacus became the top trending topic in the UK, while there is growing online support for Baskerville with the hashtag #welovebaskers. Prominent figures of the British twitterverse have been expressing their outrage and support about these topics, lending some weight to the affairs.

I will not go into the detail of these stories, others are doing a sterling job of discussing the particulars of the subject. I am more interested about what this all means in the long term. The first obvious comment is that we now have clear evidence that Twitter has grown into an equivalent to other forms of communication. While some people may be tempted to dismiss a medium that has a 140 character limit, it is clear that what happens on Twitter can have real legal effects. However, some of the people protesting about the aforementioned cases seem to imply that what happens on Twitter stays on Twitter. While I believe strongly that the Paul Chambers indictment is a travesty, we would be well served to remember that Twitter is just another communication tool, and that we should not expect it to be treated any different. The medium is not always the message.

It seems like many of us expect to have separate online and offline lives. Our social media selve is not really us, it is a reflection of who we want to be. This is probably the reason why so many inhabitants of online spaces find it odd that their digital lives should produce analogue effects.

The moral of the story is that we should be careful about what we tweet, just as we are careful about shouting in the middle of the street. If this week’s events can teach us anything, is that you never know who is listening in to your conversations.

Comments 4

  1. I think the main thing you missed is that journos should not take things out of context. You may hear something in the street, but unless you have also heard what went before or went after there is no news story in snippets. The journalists in the #welovebaskers incident did not research the story properly. As professionals they suck. The Independent has made an unforgivable error in taking the story out of the daily fail and making it even more sloppy. #indiefail #dailyfail – no wonder newspapers will soon be as obsolete as the dinosaurs they employ to make up 'news'.


  2. Your experience seems to have been the complete opposite of mine. All the people I interact with online have said that Twitter ought to be treated the same as real life.

    In the case of Paul Chambers, I responded to his tweet excatly as I would if I had heard somebody say that into a mobile phone: he was a frustrated traveller, letting off steam. Airport security didn't think he was a threat, but they notified the police. The police didn't think he was a threat, but they notified the CPS. And something oddly bureaucratic and inhuman happened.

    When Gareth Compton made that remark about Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, I thought it was unpleasant, but when I discovered that the context was that Ms. Alibhai-Brown had (allegedly) suggested westerners had no right to criticise easterners' form of justice, I felt that his words might be an appropriate satirical commenta on hers.

    In the case of @Baskers, I found it odd that a newspaper that we usually hear railing against 'political correctness' devoted a column to vilifying an ordinary British civil servant, for revealing ordinary British character traits, and demanding that she should become faceless and subservient.

    As the Bonzo Dog Band eloquently put it, we are normal, and we want our freedom.

  3. Rightly or wrongly, this was always going to happen; it was just a matter of when, not if.

    The real question is whether this is the high water mark, or just the start of things to come. I suspect it's the latter.

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