Twitter is for the birds. Some of the birds, as we surely all know, have bird brains. The small-minded, the stupid, the mean-spirited and the down right vicious have always been with us; it’s just that Twitter and other social media give their ugly outpourings added effect. But how far should this be allowed to affect the rest of us; how far should the poison spread by trolls be allowed to impact on free expression?
The question is wholly pertinent, I assure you, because the police in England are now arresting and prosecuting tweeters. Last week a seventeen-year-old was detained and later bailed on suspicion that he had sent a malicious tweet to Tom Daley, a diver on the British Olympic team. The arrest by police in the county of Dorset in south-west England comes under the Malicious Communications Act of 1988.
I had no idea this legislation existed; I had no idea that the police had such sweeping powers. This act makes it an offence to send an electronic communication that conveys a grossly offensive message intended to cause distress or anxiety. Yes, the message - which I have no intention of repeating - was offensive, but is this the right way to go about things? It just seems arbitrary and eclectic – ignore some malicious tweets and prosecute others.
It's worth pointing out that there were over 35,000 unsolved crimes in Dorset last year, including burglaries and serious sexual offences. The local force has a lamentable clear up rate, one of the worst in the country, perhaps because officers are spending too much time monitoring Twitter.
I could suggest that we are nearing the kind of surveillance state that George Orwell warned against, but the whole thing is far too lopsided for that. We have, as Nick Cohen argued recently in the political journal Prospect, a form of asymmetrical authoritarianism. It’s bound to get worse because, in the absence of clear guidelines, the police have absolutely no idea what to do, who to prosecute and who to ignore.
Let me give you another case, that of Paul Chambers, recently cleared of sending a menacing communication under the aforesaid Communications Act. Two years ago, unable to fly from an airport in Yorkshire to see his girlfriend in Northern Ireland because of bad weather, he tweeted “Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”
Ill-advised it may have been in this hyper-sensitive day and age, but it did not cause a security alert. In fact it took five days for the airport to notice it at all. It was a bad joke, no more, the sort of bad joke one sees all the time on Twitter. But he was arrested, fired from his job, and convicted under this sledge hammer legislation, one pathetic tweet among millions. In overturning the conviction the Court of Appeal said that a message, sent in frustration, was not meant to be menacing. All well and good, but in the meantime this man’s life has been ruined.
I actually have wider concerns about the dangers to free speech in our society, not just over this catch-all legislation. Twitter is notorious for raising flash mobs, the thoughtless always prepared to express collective outrage without engaging their brains. Recently Aiden Burley, a Conservative Member of Parliament, tweeted that the London Olympic opening ceremony was a left-wing farce, a position I wholly agree with.
At once the mob got to work, chewing carpet in their rage. In the pages of the left-wing Guardian Tristram Hunt, a telly ‘historian’ and professional mouth for whom I have nothing but contempt, said that the criticism of Burley and the cultural right “speaks volumes about their incompatibility with modern Britain.” There you have it; people like me are beyond the pale. We express a contrary view, which means that we are no longer part of society; we are incompatible with modern Britain; we have been sent to a kind of Devil’s Island for those who dare to challenge the consensus.
How well Melanie Philips exposes this kind of idiocy. Social media, she wrote in the Daily Mail, is thus helping to enforce the menacing codes of a society which, in the name of diversity and inclusiveness, arrests, suspends and even jails dissenters while the mob savagely tweets their social demise.
Could things be any worse in places where freedom of speech has no value? I begin to wonder. A few choice words of Abraham Lincoln’s come to mind – “When it comes to this, I shall prefer emigrating to some country where they make no pretence of loving liberty -- to Russia, for instance, where despotism can be taken pure, and without the base alloy of hypocrisy." Today China might serve. Theirs is at least an honest tyranny.