The UK has been going a little crazy recently with enacting criminal punishment for activity on social networks. We’ve seen people arrested for posting photos of a burning poppy on Facebook, or for getting drunk and being a racist idiot. Yesterday, two people, a man and a woman, were jailed for tweets of a threatening nature over Twitter:
Two people have been jailed for sending abusive messages on Twitter to feminist campaigner Caroline Criado-Perez.
Isabella Sorley, 23, of Newcastle-upon-Tyne, was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison and John Nimmo, 25, of South Shields, was jailed for eight weeks.
They had pleaded guilty at Westminster Magistrates’ Court to improper use of a communications network.
This isn’t really as ridiculous as the other cases I’ve mentioned so far. Rather than people being locked up for being racist, sexist, or simply ‘offensive’, these two people have been imprisoned for threats, which is a different sort of thing altogether. From the judgement, here are Sorley’s tweets:
Fuck off and die…you should have jumped in front of horses, go die; I will find you and you don’t want to know what I will do when I do… kill yourself before I do; rape is the last of your worries; I’ve just got out of prison and would happily do more time to see you berried; seriously go kill yourself! I will get less time for that; rape?! I’d do a lot worse things than rape you.
…and here are Nimmo’s tweets:
“Ya not that gd looking to rape u be fine; I will find you; come to geordieland (Newcastle) bitch; just think it could be somebody that knows you personally; the police will do nothing; rape her nice ass; could I help with that lol; the things I cud do to u; dumb blond bitch.”
I must admit that threats like these that are credible (or of unknown credibility, as in this case) are probably something that the police should get involved with as a last resort without it being too worrying for our freedom to express ourselves as we wish. Why? Well, threats can be used to intimidate people into doing things, or make them believe that they are likely to be victims of a crime. It is a little like blackmail, in that it is not really an act of expression but rather an criminal act (necessarily an illocutionary act) that happens to be expressive.
I have a few worries nonetheless:
1) Twitter is full of this vile abuse. That doesn’t justify the actions of these people, but why were these people arrested and not everyone who writes that sort of thing? I’ve had someone tweet things like that at me (that I might interpret as death threats if I didn’t assume that they were just your standard vile Twitter user) for only slightly disagreeing with them. I’ve seen all sort of threats and abuse in blog comments (not on SIN, thankfully). Why do those people get away with it? No public outcry or media coverage? Dare I say it might depend on the power and social status of the victim? Let’s have some consistency at least.
2) This involves a bit of prejudice, so I apologise in advance. But when I see the photos of the people involved, I see two young people who are underprivileged, dare I say ‘educationally-challenged’, Jeremy Kyle-types, and a young Oxford-educated, well-to-do woman. Where are the vast hordes of powerful men who were supposed to be sending this stuff? Why are we only chucking a young man and woman of much lower social class in jail, when we could really smash the ubiquitous power structure supposedly responsible for this problem?
…At least that narrative has been overwhelmingly falsified.
3) Lastly, Internet freedom is a big issue now and will be more so in the future. When we are compliant and supportive of the state tracking a user down based on their activity on the Internet, we set a precedent. Yes, a paranoid slippery slope isn’t usually a reason in itself for hesitation, but the British people really need to have a think about what powers they want the state to have over their Internet activity. This is just one (or two) more instances of people going to prison for what they’ve written on Twitter or Facebook. I’m troubled by this, even if I can’t really deny that genuine threats ought to be seen as criminal acts. What we need is an open debate on this topic – though I think I’m in the minority here and am therefore pessimistic about the future of the Internet and UK law.
Of course, none of this is to excuse Sorley or Nimmo, and I can imagine that Criado-Perez and Creasy would have found their vile, illiterate tweets rather terrifying. I think there should be no question that Twitter should take action, but Sorley at least is still apparently a Twitter user. I find it a little odd that an act that won’t even get you banned on Twitter can still be enough to land you in a jail cell for 12 weeks. Are Twitter not doing enough, or are the UK overstepping the bounds of legitimate interference? I suspect that the truth lies somewhere in the middle.