Sunday, 14 November 2010

Twitter on trial: #iamspartacus

Last week saw the first stirrings of rioting in response to the coalition government's policies as students holding a demo in London broke into the Conservative Party HQ in Millbank Tower and smashed some stuff up. On Thursday, almost every national paper had the same picture on the front page, but with a variety of different headlines, offering slightly different perspectives on the whole event. there is an interesting analysis of the coverage on the POLIS blog here while this montage from Political Scrapbook shows just how dominant the image was.

I was quite struck, however, by this slightly wider shot of the moment which someone tweeted on friday:

In this, we can clearly see just how many photographers are there with a ringside view so that what seems like chaos starts to look...set up?

Twitter was a good source for inside material on wednesday during the demo when people were tweeting about what was happening as it happened and others were re-tweeting and commenting upon the flow of events.

On thursday, Twitter itself hit the news with an appeal case in Doncaster Crown Court. Back in January, a man called Paul Chambers, on his way to see his girlfriend in Northern Ireland, got to the airport near doncaster to find it was shut. He tweeted: "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!!!". It was meant as a joke and he didn't really think that anyone other than his girlfriend would see it. Unfortunately, apart from his 600 followers, someone did and called the police. neither they nor Robin Hood airport thought it was a serious bomb threat, but he was brought to trial and convicted for sending a menacing communication. His appeal this week was thrown out, with the judge actually increasing his fine and making him pay costs. In the meantime, he has lost his job as well.

On Twitter, this caused a bit of a stir, with avid tweeter Stephen Fry offering to pay off his fine and many people seeing it as a threat to free speech. The judge appears to have taken the view that there was no humour involved, saying the tweet was "menacing in its content and obviously so. It could not be more clear. Any ordinary person reading this would see it in that way and be alarmed."

The implications of this case are wide-ranging, as people using twitter or indeed any social network, like Facebook, could be open to prosecution for any public remark, however it may have been intended. This case coincided with an incident where a Conservative councillor, Gareth Compton, from Birmingham was reported to have tweeted after getting annoyed by a phone-in on Five Live: "Can someone please stone Yasmin Alibhai-Brown to death? I shan't tell Amnesty if you don't. It would be a blessing, really."

He too was arrested and has been suspended by the local party. His tweet contained the hashtag #R5L indicating that his words were a response to the phone-in, where Ms.Alibhai-Brown had been making some forthright points about the war in Iraq, with which he disagreed. Though his words were rather clumsy and even offensive, it would be hard to argue that they were meant as a direct threat.

She heard about the tweet and suggested he should be arrested and someone went on to report him to the police. He was arrested under suspicion of a breach of section 127 of the 2003 Communications Act – Improper use of public electronic communications network, where "a person is guilty of an offence if he sends by means of a public electronic communications network a message or other matter that is grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character". Though this law is rarely invoked, it is a bit alarming in terms of its breadth, as it would appear that many thousands of messages on twitter or facebook each day could fall foul of it- think of some of the things you may have sent or just posted on your facebook wall which you thought were just funny...

Anyway, this point was taken up in a big way on friday, when thousands of twitter users, including many celebrities like Dara O'Brain, Emma Thompson and Stephen Fry re-sent the Chambers tweet along with the hashtag #iamspartacus, a reference to the 1960 film where rebellious gladiators refuse to let Spartacus carry the blame and all claim to be him.

Charlie Brooker's tongue-in-cheek column for The Guardian takes it one step further.

If you aren't on Twitter yet, don't be put off by commentators who suggest it's just a middle-aged and middle class fad. There are a lot of influential people on there and a lot of people who tweet interesting and useful stuff; next week, I'll be suggesting some people you could follow on Twitter, so in the meantime, set yourself up an account!

I'm @cmdiploma by the way!

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