Should trolls who say disobliging things about people on Twitter face imprisonment or death?
Well the answer is now in and, depressingly, it appears to be “yes”.
Today, we read the news that a woman who tweeted under the name “@sweepyface” has been found dead in her hotel room, after having had her identity publicly exposed on television as the author of some unpleasant tweets about the parents of the missing child Madeleine McCann.
A week ago, we saw a man named Peter Nunn jailed for 18 weeks for sending a series of abusive tweets to Labour MP Stella Creasy.
Well I’ve read some of Nunn’s tweets and they’re really not nice.
One of them (a retweet, rather than something he thought up himself) says: “You better watch your back, I’m going to rape your arse at 8pm and put the video all over.”
So yes I think we can all probably agree that Nunn sounds a bit of a warped individual – well in line with that recent study from Canada which suggested that trolls tend to have cruel, psychopathic, Machiavellian personalities.
But where, I suspect, the more sane among us would differ from Stella Creasy and the presiding judge is over the idea that being an unpleasant piece of work ought to be a crime punishable by a prison sentence.
Nunn was found guilty by the judge of “sending indecent, obscure or menacing messages” which, according to the prosecution, had had a “substantial” effect on Creasy who felt “increasing concern that individuals were seeking not only to cause her distress but also to cause her real harm which led her to fear for her own safety.”
I suppose if I were shallow and vindictive enough to want someone put away for being rude about me on social media that would be the line I’d take too. Probably, I might also claim – as feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez did in a supporting statement – that the “fear and horror” generated by these nasty tweets had given me “dizzy spells.” Why stop at mere offence and upset, after all, when you can up the ante to actual physical symptoms?
But I’m not that shallow and vindictive and, even if I were, I simply don’t think I’d have the brazen hypocrisy, the moral dishonesty, and the naked cynicism to pursue such an utterly dishonest case.
Think about it. Stella Creasy has been on Twitter since 2008, during which period she has attracted a very respectable following of 50,000. Caroline CriadoPerez is a more recent addition – joined June 2012 – but she clearly knows what she’s doing, having attracted a following of 28.6K: not bad for someone known for not very much other than causing a stink about there not being enough women on British banknotes and complaining a lot about “everyday sexism.”
What we can safely infer about both Creasy and Criado-Perez is that they are confident and comfortable with the medium of Twitter and know exactly how it works. They know, for example, how easy it is to retweet a striking message which has caught your eye, and that this does not necessarily constitute an endorsement. They know that when you tweet something, the only people who are going to read that tweet are people who have chosen to follow you. And that all you have to do if you don’t want to read that person’s tweets any more is either to “unfollow” them or, in extremis, block them.
In other words, what used to be said about the television or the radio – “if you don’t like the programme, turn it off” – applies equally to the stuff you find on Twitter: it’s consensual and voluntary. It is the work of seconds to erase from your Twitter life the opinions of someone you find objectionable. And even if they pop back at you again with a different avatar, you can block that one too. Sure, it might be a bit tedious having to play Twitter whack-a-mole with an unusually persistent troll. But unfortunately – and EVERYONE on Twitter knows and understands this, even if it might not always suit them to admit it – Twitter is a bear pit where, for both better and worse, the norms of ordinary, polite discourse do not apply.
Sad, sick people vent their spleen from behind anonymising avatars. Celebrities say things so exceptionally stupid you can’t help following them, if only to see if they’ll say anything more stupid still. Outspoken commentators say things even more outspoken and potentially offensive than ever they’d dare in an article or in a TV soundbite. The point about Twitter, after all, is to say stuff that is going to excite comment, grab people’s attention, get yourself retweeted and acquire more followers. These are the Twitter rules. They always have been the Twitter rules. And if you don’t like them you really shouldn’t be on Twitter for there are many other less challenging social media venues in which to hang out. MumsNet say. Or Upworthy.
Both Caroline Criado-Perez and Stella Creasy know all this. Of course they do. But like the spoiled little missies they are, they want to have their cake and eat it. That is, they are more than happy to enjoy all the benefits of the raised media profile they gain as a result of their provocative, indeed sometimes intensely irritating, sanctiminious, neo-feminist posturing on Twitter. Just not the inevitable unpleasantness that goes with what they do: what they do being, essentially, just another form of trolling dressed up as social justice campaigning.
Still, at least poor, silly Peter Nunn, only ended up with a few weeks in prison, whereas Brenda Nayland – the 63-year old woman unmasked last week by Sky News as @sweepyface, author of some abusive messages about Kate and Gerry McCann – has lost her life altogether.
Did she deserve it? Well, I haven’t read any of the tweets she wrote about the McCanns. And that is rather the point: nor will anyone else have done. How big a following would a not-famous woman from a Leicestershire village ever acquire on Twitter? 100 max, I’m guessing. And just how easy would it have been for the McCanns to ignore her tweets? Very actually. It’s what I do, myself, every day. The world is full of weird haters. Shrug your shoulders. Get over it. The idea that such matters ought to be of any interest to the police, let alone the Crown Prosecution Service, is absurd.
Or has the world really changed so radically since that phrase we all used to learn at school: “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me.”?