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.