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Should You Ever Be Jailed for Sending Nasty Tweets?

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In a society where the line between right and wrong changes as rapidly as ours, it’s not always easy to agree about how things should be. While we all intuitively know what’s socially acceptable behavior, things become tricky when deciding what should be the punishments for the offensive things someone says on the internet.

This article will cover social media, free speech, censorship, and personal responsibility. The purpose here isn’t to draw absolute conclusions or make strong judgments, but to invite you to think for yourself and use these ideas for further conversation with your friends, family, and colleagues.


A mobile phone showing the Twitter logo on a blue background

First, let’s establish the premise of this discussion. Why are we even having this conversation in the first place? We’re doing so in light of Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 of the United Kingdom and how it aims to influence people’s behavior online.

The Act charges a person as guilty of an offense if he posts something that is “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character” or causes “annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety to another.” Clearly, that’s not very explicit.

Under this law, a person can be found guilty and imprisoned for making offensive jokes targeted towards an individual or group, using racial slurs, etc. As reported by The Guardian, the same happened with Paul Chambers in 2010 when he got arrested for sending a joke on Twitter that read:

MAKEUSEOF VIDEO OF THE DAY

Crap! 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!!

He did so in angst that England’s Doncaster Sheffield airport (formerly Robin Hood airport) was closed and that his flight would be delayed.

In the light of numerous controversies in 2012, Keir Starmer, the Director of Public Prosecutions, clarified that only credible threats of violence, harassment, or stalking would be eligible for criminal prosecution under UK law. But it won’t cover expressions of “unpopular or unfashionable opinion about serious or trivial matters, or banter or humor, even if distasteful to some and painful to those subjected to it.”

Despite this clarification, on February 3rd, 2020, Joseph Kelly was found guilty for defaming an acclaimed British army officer Captain Sir Tom Moore, on the day of his death, tweeting “the only good Brit soldier is a deed one, burn auld fella buuuuurn.”

This topic is so prominent because, unlike in the real world, the comments you make online are stored virtually forever in the form of social media content—unless you delete yourself from the internet, which is practically next to impossible.

So, Should You Be Punished for Nasty Tweets?

user avoiding social engineering attacks

It depends on the level of harm in question. People are nasty on the internet all the time. Simply insulting someone on social media, saying something negative, or just plain trolling is not harmful enough of an offense and should therefore not be grounds to imprison someone.

In the case of Paul Chambers, even if you believe that he had wrong intentions, his tweet was not a valid offense given his obvious inability to “blow the airport sky high.” Simply expressing your anger about life’s unfortunate events is not a credible threat of violence. Starmer later admitted that prosecuting Chambers was a wrong “judgment call.”

More severe cases such as harassment, death threats, cyber-bullying, identity theft, phishing, etc., are indeed valid offenses because they are more suggestive of criminal intentions and have an apparent target.

Related: How Meta Is Dealing With Sexual Harassment in VR

Simply put, there’s a difference between being obnoxious and being malevolent. For the former, social media platforms have community standards and censorship policies that (although not flawlessly) do their job quite well of filtering out the nasty side effects of freedom of speech, including spam, scams, etc.

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Image Credit: mikoto.raw Photographer/Pexels
 

As annoying as it is when algorithms misfire and take down normal posts, we can’t deny their usefulness in keeping social platforms hospitable. That’s not to say that those algorithms don’t need work; they most certainly do, but having them with their imperfections is still miles better than not having them at all.

Granted, you shouldn’t be censored or punished for cracking silly jokes, making offensive or gross comments, or doing something similar. However, if your actions imply an apparent intention (and ability) to dehumanize or cause an immense amount of harm to an individual, then that’s where we should draw the line.

Also, it’s good to remind ourselves that social media is still a very new and peculiar environment in the grand scheme of things, especially for the non-tech-savvy users among us. People are still learning and adapting to how they’re ideally supposed to behave in it, so there has to be some room in the system for leniency alongside strict rules and laws.

Having Good Laws Doesn’t Excuse Bad Execution

A photo of people engaged on their phones

Besides Paul Chambers and Joseph Kelly, other names have had similar experiences under UK law. Such stories can strike fear in people and make them reluctant to share their ideas and opinions on social media, which is not what the internet sets out to do.

After the clarification provided by Keir Starmer, the UK law seems more justifiable than before, but its wildly ambiguous wording remains a significant problem. Plus, given how the UK government has exercised the law so far, both fairly and unfairly, its validity seems questionable and far from being the perfect representation of its vision.

Ultimately, the government should consider both the nuances and the big picture when handling such situations. There needs to be a balance between the right to free speech and the censor and prosecution of hate speech and valid threats.

Technology Moves Faster Than the Law

One of the greatest but also the most dangerous things about technology is how fast it grows—often faster than the laws supposed to govern it. The same way we struggle today to form and exercise laws regarding the proper use of social media, we may also face similar or even tougher challenges in the future.

One of such challenges will most certainly be building the metaverse. There are many uncertainties and worries to address right from the get-go, but we’ll inevitably discover many more as the technology matures and becomes accessible to a broader audience.


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