The striking thing about Twitter is how it is sometimes a facilitator for not only breaking news but, in many of the cases, for creating it. Well, now we can add yet another Twitter-based debacle to the list for 2012, though this one has the additional nuance of treading into the tricky terrain of free speech.
According to numerous British media outlets, on July 30th evening, British diver and beloved athlete Tom Daley just missed an Olympic gold on his final dive. Minutes later, he received the following message from an anonymous Twitter account: ‘You let your dad down I hope you know that.’ Daley’s father had passed away from brain Cancer last year. Another message quickly followed: ‘Hope your crying now you should be why cant you ever produce for your country your just a diver anyway a over-hyped p****.’
Daley instantly retweeted the first message to about 900,000 of his fans, tweeting: ‘After giving it my all . . .you get idiots sending me this . . .’
What followed was a social media uproar, with fans demanding that the anonymous account (under the name Rileyy_69) be suspended. Headlines lambasted the “Twitter Troll”, while Olympic officials and athletes tut-tutted at the “appalling remarks” and philosophised about the incredible responsibility and power that comes with social media. Nothing out of the ordinary here in the social media world. But perhaps where things became interesting was when the police got involved, tracked down Rileyy_69, arrested him for “malicious communication”, and eventually released him after issuing him a “harassment warning”. The Mirror, a British media organisation, reported that in addition to the warning, the teenager had been bailed to return to the police station at a later date while other communications on his Twitter account were investigated.
Rileyy_69, identified as 17-year-old Resse Messer did attempt to apologise to Daley when news of his tweet spread according to The Guardian. He tweeted: “@TomDaley1994 I’m sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its the olympics I’m just annoyed we didn’t win I’m sorry tom accept my apology.’ He later added: ‘please i don’t want to be hated I’m just sorry you didn’t win i was rooting for you pal to do britain all proud just so upset.’
However, in an interview with the Mail Online, he was quoted as saying the following: “Grinning broadly, Reece says he is delighted with the ‘publicity’. He points out that the number of people ‘following’ him on Twitter has increased by 30,000 in a week. ‘That tweet is the most notorious in Twitter history,’ he adds. ‘I was trending worldwide for two days and that’s a hard feat. Only seven people can trend at one time and I’m quite proud because a lot of people don’t trend and usually only celebrities trend worldwide. I think everyone is jealous and they wish they had all the attention that I do.’”
While no doubt Messer’s Tweet was insensitive, this is an interesting case because it does raise many questions about policing the internet, as well as the boundaries of free speech. According to Simon Reed, vice-chairman of the UK Police Federation, officers investigated content on Facebook 14,000 times last year, and they simply do not have the time or resources to monitor the internet. He told the Daily Mail, “There is legislation which concerns causing harassment, alarm or distress. But can we police the internet when someone upsets someone else?”
The same article also quotes Stuart Hyde, chief constable of Cumbria and the Association of Chief Police Officers spokesman on social media as follows: “Social media is increasingly part of police business and the law covers situations where you have comment that goes way beyond legitimate opinion. We don’t just deal with people who are famous. People have the right to freedom of speech but it has to be within the law.”
What do you think? What should be the limits on free speech within the social media context, or do you feel such limits shouldn’t exist at all? What’s the slippery slope between expressing an opinion and legitimate harassment, libel, or intent to harm? Should the internet be policed, and if so how or how much?
Regardless of which side of this debate you fall, it is clear that social media is a powerful tool (for good or bad depending on how you use it) and is now an integral part of our world. Learn more about the Baird’s CMC new media strategy service line and how you can leverage social media to transform your communications message or brand.