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Policing the internet

31st Jul 2012

Twitter just can’t stay out the news, can it? The microblogging service has once again made the headlines, this time because of some rather unpleasant tweets sent to Olympic diver Tom Daley.

The 18-year-old received a barrage of abuse from people after he and his diving partner failed to win a medal yesterday; they finished fourth. Now, a 17-year-old, who goes by the Twitter handle of @Rileyy69, has been arrested for sending ‘malicious communication’.

Firstly, I absolutely do not, nor does anyone with a modicum of tact, humility and intelligence, condone what he said to Tom Daley (which related to his father’s death last year after a long battle with cancer). It’s obviously unpleasant, and extremely hurtful.

However, @Rileyy69’s arrest sets Twitter and the CPS on a very dangerous road, reflective of an increasingly sensitive and hyper-policed culture.

Let’s take a look at the figures. According to Wikipedia (and we’re going to trust it for this purpose), there are over 340 million tweets sent out every day. That’s over 14 million an hour. It would take an army of millions just to get a handle on the very surface of Twitter’s constantly renewing content.

I’ve written before about what I see as the banality of Twitter. It’s a lot of voices trying to shout louder than the other, often with no real insight or relevance. Millions of vapid statements, akin to the conversations you have around closing time.

People forget, however, that Twitter is public communications network. It’s not your local. Once messages are within the public domain, they’re fair game for (mis)interpretation and, indeed, prosecution.

This is where common sense is vital. The recent Twitterjoke trial of Paul Chambers, who was acquitted after being found guilty of sending out ‘menacing electronic communication’ for an offhand comment (albeit not a very funny one) about ‘blowing Robin Hood Airport sky-high’. The media furore, and celebrity support Mr Chambers found for himself, with was indicative of how farcical the whole procedure was. The argument, of course, is that before long we could find ourselves in an Orwellian thought-policed dystopia. (This, of course, won’t happen, but there are genuine concerns regarding freedom of speech, especially given the sardonic nature of so-called ‘British humour’.)

In the case of the obviously disturbed (and seemingly very regretful) 17-year-old, one has to wonder if his arrest is worthwhile. It’s certainly not proportionate – Tom Daley received abuse from more than just @Rileyy69. Yes his tweets were unhinged and nasty, but on that basis there would be thousands of arrests daily.

What’s more encouraging is the outpouring of support for the young athlete. Tens of thousands of Twitter users have rallied, declaring their pride and support for him, as well as publicly shaming those who have sent him abuse. SocialMention had sentiment at a ratio of 36:1 in favour of positivity for mentions of Tom Daley earlier this morning.

I’m not here to provide a solution for internet trolls. I’m reticent to even suggest one. However, given the sheer scale of the task, I can’t help but think that there are bigger things to worry about that the policing of a few idiots Twitter.

A better idea? Show your support for a young athlete with massive potential. Drown out the naysayers and trolls with positive vibes using the #tomdaley #olympics2012 and #OurGreatestTeam hashtags. Without getting too patriotic, show your support; it’s the least you can do.