With the wave of arrests over some who’ve over-stepped the mark on Twitter, you might imagine everyone would think twice before they tweet.
After all, there was trainee accountant Paul Chambers who was arrested by anti-terrorism police after he posted a joke for close friends threatening to blow up his local airport when bad weather threatened to close it. Chambers lost his job and was ordered to pay £1,000 fines. Then there was student Joshua Cryer given a two-year community order for racially abusing footballer Stan Collymore on Twitter. And in the same week another student, Liam Stacey, who wrote drunken racially aggravating tweets about Fabrice Muamba was also prosecuted. More recently following the jailing of footballer Ched Evans for rape, one of his team mates was suspended from his club for tweeting about his victim. Police are also investigating how she became to be identified on Twitter when legally rape victims are granted anonymity for life.
To put this in perspective, any editor of a mainstream publication would find themselves in the court dock if they so much as printed a whiff of any of the above. So it’s worrying that despite bona fide writers and journalists obeying the laws to the letter that some people actually believe the internet is above the law – and they can pretty much say what they like.
In an article discussing this issue in the Sunday Times, a psychologist tries to fathom why some people might even say something on the internet they would never dream of saying in every-day life.
Disinhibition in cyberspace…
But apparently it is a phenomenon that now has its own name. Monica Whitty, a professor at the University of Leicester says it is ‘disinhibition in cyberspace…’
“Sometimes people can be benevolent online,” she tells the paper, “as in the case of Claire Squires (the Marathon runner that died and provoked a huge outpouring of sympathy from Twitter) but sometimes they can be aggressive.
“In both cases there is a distance between who you are in your normal life.”
The psychologist explains this is because when we join in commenting on something that is trending on Twitter we become part of a big group.
“You act in a group rather than how you would necessarily act as yourself,” she says, “you can parallel it with rioting. Someone who would normally not be violent can get swept up in the group dynamic.
“Twitter makes you part of a group. It diminishes personal responsibility.”
The legal position
The issue of course for lawyers is the practicality of who is responsible for creating the trend in the first place and spreading the defamatory or illegal statement.
A good example is Ryan Giggs. Although newspapers and magazines were gagged from naming him as the footballer allegedly having an affair – and his lawyers had even taken out a super-injunction to ensure no editor did so – he was named on Twitter. Legally everyone who retweeted his name was breaking the law – they were breaking the super-injunction and each individual was therefore in contempt of court. The issue was a practical one – how would you take thousands of people, if not millions, to court?
It is an issue that is at the core of the Leveson press inquiry – after all, it’s all very well if bona fide newspapers abide by rules but what about the Internet?
However, this does not let off individuals who start the rumours in the first place. As one lawyer told the Sunday Times: “The person who drops the dirt onto the social media network and poisons the pool should carry the responsibility. That’s the person society should make an example of.”
And as the recent spate of arrests shows, it is possibly getting harder to say what you want without any thought on Twitter. Say something defamatory or untrue and you could be sued.