No difference between online and offline illegal activity

WHEN Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba collapsed at White Hart Lane 11 days ago the incident engendered an almost unanimous outpouring of compassion, not just among football fans, but the country, in fact much of the world seemed to share in the collective concern.

Players, managers, pundits, supporters and those who had no affiliation to football encouraged us to “pray for Muamba”.

The hashtag #PrayForMuamba was posted to micro blogging site Twitter 685,721 times between Saturday 17th and Monday 19th March, according to @TwitterUK.

Given the strength of public reaction, it is perhaps unsurprising that events which happened on Twitter only minutes after the 27-year-old collapsed have focused so much media attention.

While Fabrice Muamba lay fighting for his life – unable to breathe without help for 78 minutes – social media “trolls” mocked his condition.

Not every one of those malicious tweets would have been pounced on by an outraged public or a social media savvy former footballer (Stan Collymore), and reported to the police. Some will have gone largely unnoticed, unreported, probably now deleted.

Liam Stacey’s weren’t. As a result of his comments, he was sentenced to 56 days in prison, with a recommendation to serve at least half.

Another recent high profile case involving social media is that of former New Zealand cricket captain Chris Cairns who won £90,000 in libel damages at the High Court in London for false claims made about him by someone on Twitter.

Cases like these may open the flood-gates to further prosecutions of this kind, fuelled by an expectant media and an increasingly vigilant public.

The legal consequences of “publishing” defamatory comments online on Twitter, Facebook, via blogs etc are becoming apparent at an alarming speed.

And the pace of the prosecutions demonstrates how easy it is gather enough evidence for a conviction.

It is perhaps naïve of those involved to think that they can hide behind their keyboards and not be subject to the same rules and regulations as they would if they verbalised these comments in a pub, for example.

Those who underestimate the damage to an individual – emotionally or professionally – of inappropriate comments have had a wake-up call, particularly in the last few days.

Verbal “banter” has the benefit of the recipient being able to gauge tone and sometimes see facial expression, which means actions and reactions can be read appropriately. These are lost in the written word. It is no less damaging, but it seems to be much more acceptable to some to use it maliciously.

There were more than 2,000 prosecutions in 2011 under section 127 of the Communications Act, according to the Department for Culture, Media and Sport. The DCMS said: “The fundamental principle for internet hosted material is that what is illegal offline is also illegal online.”

Last month, Culture Secretary Jeremy Hunt spoke about homophobia and racism in football as no longer being acceptable on the terraces – as it was 20 years ago. However, he said “it seems still to be socially acceptable on Twitter.”

The likelihood of Mr Hunt’s words ringing true for a couple of decades is doubtful if the pace of prosecution and the public policing demonstrated in recent days is anything to go by.

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About Julie Kissick

I'm a journalist with extensive experience working in radio, television, newspapers and magazines. I've been a manager, broadcaster and content producer for various media outlets including BBC, ITV and Northcliffe Newspaper Group. I have a passion for teaching and learning, social media and football.
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One Response to No difference between online and offline illegal activity

  1. Kevin Jones says:

    “It is perhaps naïve of those involved to think that they can hide behind their keyboards and not be subject to the same rules and regulations as they would if they verbalised these comments in a pub, for example.”

    This is simply not true. The tendency in a lot of writing about the internet, to compare social media sites to real spaces like a pub, is very dangerous. The spatial metaphor ignores the role of the media format which regulates online social behavior. So when I’m in a pub, my expression is not restricted to 130 characters. When I’m in a pub, I’m not a disembodied series of characters: I have a voice, an appearance, facial expressions, a smell, etc. When I’m in a pub, I don’t hold a picture of me, or someone or something else for that matter, in front of my face: I don;t have an avatar. Finally, when I’m in a pub, I don’t carry a card around with me listing my likes, dislikes, favourite books, films, quotations, along with a roladex of all the photos which have ever been taken of me ever. Talking offline and online are completely different forms of communication – one is regulated by the format of a social media site, the other isn’t.

    The format of social media sites inevitably has some impact upon the behaviour of the user. The idea that you are expressing your inner thoughts and emotions when communicating on Facebook or Twitter is not true. Your thoughts are filtered through the social media site, which acts like a system, imposing form on your content.

    This is a very roundabout way of saying quite a simple thing: that the way that social media sites are designed, how they function and how they operate affects a user’s behaviour. In light of the present example, a court treating his online comments as if they have the same weight as him voicing the same in a pub is just wrong. They are not the same action, and there’s a big difference between acting like an attention seeking social media user, and making a racist comment in a pub.

    I’m not really defending the actions of Liam Stacey. However, to say that the law should be applied equally to things that happen on the internet and things that happen offline is opening a pandora’s box. State Regulation of the internet, and having people tried on the basis of something they write on Twitter is not a world I want to live in, even if it means occasionally having to put up with idiots like Stacy. Because of the racist and moronic content of Liam Stacy’s comments , its easy to condemn him. However once the state begins regulating expression on the net, it opens the door to state surveillance and censorship of all kinds of comments, even one which are in a public interest yet are subversive to the goals of a government.

    So we should stop thinking about websites and social media forums as being like real spaces, which are party to the same laws and the same forms of punishment. To not so do is going to continue the retrograde dialogue which currently surrounds the social media and the internet as a whole.

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