Too many tweets make a twat.
Famously, that was a proverb for our times coined by British prime minister David Cameron in a radio interview. While his wit and wisdom may not quite rank with Solomon or Confucius, it is definitely the time for Heretic TOC to be talking about Twitter twats and other social media jerks following a week of intense online hostility after my appearance on 60 Minutes.
I wouldn’t mind the blitz of over a hundred abusive tweets; I could put up with the 400 comments on Stinson Hunter’s Facebook page, many of them extremely vituperative and offering illegal incitements to violence; I could even live with the death threats (as long as they aren’t actually carried out, of course!), some of them explicitly threatening to hunt me down and inflict specific tortures, described in lovingly graphic detail.
All of that is just a bit of a yawn compared to the hostile acts already carried out: not physical violence but violations of the right to free speech. Facebook, bizarrely, instead of taking to task the people who were breaking their own Terms of Service (ToS) by posting messages that “bully, intimidate, or harass”, or use “hate speech”, decided instead to disable my account, even though it has been unused for a very long time and the page contained nothing remotely controversial. Twitter, with similar rules, soon followed suit, saying my account had been suspended. I was invited to file an appeal, which I did, on the 22nd, but there was no indication of when or even whether I can expect a response. The ToS say they can terminate an account at any time without giving a reason.
For me, Twitter’s action is much the more serious of the two, partly because it is a social medium I was beginning to make active use of (too bad, as well, for any Followers with a particular interest) and partly because it tends to be more “political” than Facebook. Both are important, though, because there are so many other sites where logging in is done via Facebook or Twitter. The Twitter suspension notice followed a tweet by a certain Ian Puddick, in which he claimed that “MP Sir Rhodes Boyce was in charge of #PIE magazine which listed schools where boys could b raped by at partys”. I replied: “@ianpuddick claims Sir Rhodes Boyce (sic) was ‘in charge of #PIE magazine’. LOL! Boyson never a member of #PaedophileInformationExchange”.
The reply was blocked. The effect, as may be seen, is that Puddick was able to make a seriously defamatory allegation – that PIE facilitated the “rape” of minors – without me being able to reply. As the former chair of PIE, I was in effect libelled personally; so being blocked in this way was an even more grievous matter than an ordinary denial of free speech. The same applies to a yet greater degree for other tweets, to which I was likewise unable to reply. How about this one, from a poster called Discovery77: “This man incites violent hatred and is clearly a live threat to children. – @tomvoca Why is he free? #60Mins”.
Violent hatred? Moi? Some mistake, surely?
Perhaps not. More a case of deliberate, dishonest, malice. The question is, though, what can be done about it? Appeals to the companies concerned tend to fall on deaf ears. And taking them to court for a civil action looks a tough proposition. For a start, I live in Britain but both Facebook and Twitter specify that their ToS are governed by the laws of the State of California and that any court action must be heard in that state.
David Kennerly suggested, “We don’t get to tell them how to run their business but we can help in making Facebook increasingly irrelevant by going elsewhere…” The trouble with that idea, voting with our feet, so to speak, is that some of these social media sites are monopolies: there is no other site one could go to as an alternative to Twitter, for instance. And Twitter is increasingly becoming too important to ignore.
So, if reporting abuse and appealing against accounts being blocked are ineffective, and if the civil law is out of reach, what remains? Well, there is the criminal law. I don’t have high hopes because there must be scores of people given a hard time on Stinson Hunter’s page, especially, who have complained to the police about violent threats. The fact that his page continues to post these threats suggests that the police and/or the public prosecutors, are no more interested in rocking the boat than the social media corporations.
On the other hand, most of the people exposed by Hunter have probably had quite enough of the police already: they are unlikely to be confident complainers. I have similar misgivings. It is all too easy to initiate a complaint, only to find that any subsequent investigation is directed not against the offender but against the complainant – as we have seen all too clearly demonstrated by Facebook and Twitter. Nevertheless, I have drafted a letter to the police, calling for an investigation into the individuals who have posted incitements to violence and death threats. If such an investigation were to result in successful prosecutions, followed by media publicity that would “send a message” showing people are not fair game for lynch mobs, no matter what their views, it would surely be worth doing.
But would it really happen? Such a result would not be unprecedented. Only this month two brothers who dubbed themselves “The Paedophile Squad” were jailed for trying to blackmail “a convicted child sex offender”. This gained some publicity but only, it seems, in the Romford Recorder, a local newspaper where the offence took place. Blackmail is in any event a different matter to what we have been discussing, although this one did take place in the context of a Stinson Hunter-style sting operation.
More directly relevant is a case from earlier this year in Northern Ireland, albeit this was a civil case brought under privacy law, not a criminal prosecution. A report in the Belfast Telegraph said a “child abuser” was awarded £20,000 damages after being “named and shamed” on Facebook, in what was said to be the first case of its kind worldwide. The success of the action makes one aspect of Facebook’s ToS mentioned above – that the corporation will only entertain cases brought in California – appear spurious and unenforceable.
The judge said information published on the page could have threatened public order and incited violence and hatred: “It was an attempt to hunt a sex offender, to drive him from his home and to expose him to vilification.” The sex offender had claimed harassment, violation of his right to privacy and breaches of the Data Protection Act against Facebook and the person whose Facebook page it was, someone by the name of Joe McCloskey. Both Facebook and McCloskey were held liable for misuse of private information, with a further finding against the page operator for unlawful harassment.
One of the commentators on the page had written: “I would tie him to a tree and put a blow torch where he wouldn’t want it. And enjoy watching him in pain.” Others called for his whereabouts to be reported to locals, with a recommendation given: “If you see, kill the ****.”
The victim of these threats claimed his fear of violence was heightened by one of those posting on the page being a former paramilitary commander who forced him to flee in a past attack on his home. He also testified he had been threatened with being thrown off a pier during a fishing trip, hounded out of a cinema and had to use a supermarket trolley to fight off another tormentor.
This last paragraph indicates that the Irish case led to serious local consequences for the victim, thereby providing a solid basis for the award of substantial damages. Also, if the case had been a criminal one, the victim’s evidence would have amounted to a clear demonstration that the threats had been highly credible and that the online incitement had led to real intimidation, close up and terrifying. That degree of credibility is mercifully lacking at present in my own case. While on balance that is definitely a blessing, it means a prosecution is less likely. That is because, under the Guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media issued by the Crown Prosecution Service, a prosecution should not be undertaken unless the threat is indeed credible. In the words of the Lord Chief Justice: “… a message which does not create fear or apprehension in those to whom it is communicated [fails] for the simple reason that the message lacks menace.”
Not that such a sense of menace must be reinforced by intimidation at close quarters. Remember Caroline Criado-Perez last year? The feminist who successfully campaigned for a woman (the novelist Jane Austen) to be featured on a British bank note? Her Twitter abusers were prosecuted, leading to guilty pleas. Their threats did not appear to have led to any offline intimidation. In order to get the case launched, it was sufficient for Caroline Criado-Perez to say she had been caused “significant fear” that she would be found and the threats would be carried out.
Prosecutions also have to pass a test that they would be in the public interest. I can see nothing in the relevant guidance to suggest my case would fail that test, although it may be judged there is too little evidence that I have been seriously scared!
As for launching my own civil action, I would find it hard to avail myself of privacy law because, by going on TV with controversial opinions, and blogging in like manner under my own name, I can hardly complain that anyone is invading my private life. To get redress for that I’d have to sue myself for being recklessly open!
So, am I totally snookered? Should I send that letter I drafted or would it just be a waste of time and effort? Is there anything else that can be done? Your views would be most welcome.