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Posted by on Jan 25, 2014 in Freedom of Expression, Politics | 10 comments

Twitter, Threats and Jail

 

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.

 

  • f_galton

    The UK is a police state.

  • SimonNorwich

    A good article. You’re very right to point out that there’s a distinct difference between physical threats and offensive insults.

    You’re also right that it seems odd that some people can received hundreds of tweets containing physical threats with no action taken by the authorities. I suspect a main reason is the nature of the victim and how they react to a threat or make a complaint. Someone who engages in very strong arguments on social media is perhaps unlikely even to make a complaint about a threat, or to be particularly worried or upset by it. Another person who does not engage in such debates is more likely to feel shocked and scared when they receive threats, and complain to the authorities. However, clearly the authorities are slow at getting their act together and being consistent on this issue.

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    I’m not seeing a good argument here for treating online threats any differently than threats sent through the mails. Either way, someone is deliberately choosing to terrorize someone else via an illocutionary act.

    When a certain area is particularly crime-ridden, it seems to me that this warrants more law enforcement resources beings directed to that area rather than fewer. We agree that online social networks often facilitate death and rape threats, and don’t often take action against such things, but to me this militates for law enforcement getting more involved, since the industry appears to be unwilling or unable to police itself. Of course, jail time isn’t necessarily the answer, there are loads of other possibilities to consider.

    As for your second concern, I’m guessing that most “powerful” and/or well-educated men have more to lose and thus more motivation to cloak themselves in pseudonymy prior to making threats online. You may recall a salient example of this from SP 1.0, when a pseudonymous commenter threatened to assault PZ Myers at the GAC in Melbourne.

    As to the slippery slope argument, I’m not buying it. I should absolutely have the freedom to speak out about gun rights from a soapbox in a public park, but if I start threatening to give a real time demonstration of lethal marksmanship, I’m going to get hauled off and for good reason. The line between freedom of expression and threats of force is a relatively bright one.

  • Shadow of a Doubt

    The difference between a threat and simple insulting internet speech is whether or not it involves a declaration of an action or is simply something one party finds offensive. Both of the above statements involve at least one declaration of future violence against Criado-Perez, and so clearly are a threat against her. The delivery medium, although it may affect the ability of a person to deliver on a threat (someone across the bar telling me they’re going to punch me in the face has larger likelihood of attempting to do so than someone across the globe), does not change the intent of the threat, and so I say they should receive no exemption.

    Context is important, I uttered (among many other colorful phrases): “I’m going hunt you down and shove a grenade so far up your ass that you’ll taste the metal before your head goes boom” last night while playing online. Obviously in the context of a game which involves the use of hand grenades and other weapons it would be far fetched to suggest I was going to perform this act on the player in the real world, however the above tweeters have no such context.

    There is a semantic, but important point to be made in the speech chosen, the difference between a threat and an offensive statement can be as simple as a single word or two. “Shove a rusty porcupine up your ass” “Go die in a fire” “I hope you get raped”; these are all examples of extreme vile speech commonly found on the internet, but none of them are threats, merely insults, regardless of how much the recipient takes offense to them. They’re no more threatening that if I told someone to “go jump in a lake” or “pound sand”. However “I’ll shove a porcupine up your ass” “I’m going to rape you” “I’ll kill you with fire” are all definitely threats, and since we cannot read the mind of the person stating these things on twitter, we can use only their words to determine their intent, which in the above case, involve specific declarative threats.

    Although the jailing may seem extreme, I agree with Damion in that there is a necessity for police to get involved especially if the chat and social media services will not, while I cannot support them halting people from saying offensive speech, they are simply doing their jobs when enforcing laws against threats, and both of the people jailed crossed that line.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    I’m not seeing a good argument here for treating online threats any differently than threats sent through the mails.

    I think mailing a threat requires more effort and intent. I can just get a bit angry/crazy/drunk etc., then send a tweet without really wanting to threaten in a serious way. However, if I start sending letters in the mail, I think that’s scarier. I know I’d rather receive a threatening tweet than a threatening letter.

    When a certain area is particularly crime-ridden…

    Well perhaps, but let’s not be selective about it (see next). Also, I don’t think Twitter Support’s effectiveness should be a factor in law-making decisions.

    As for your second concern, I’m guessing that most “powerful” and/or well-educated men have more to lose and thus more motivation to cloak themselves in pseudonymy prior to making threats online.

    Perhaps I’m misunderstanding you, but I wasn’t talking about pseudonyms. Imagine three identical mailed threats sent in one day. One is sent to John Q. Nobody. Another is sent to Jane D. Oe. The other is sent to George Osborne. Now suppose that they all complain but the police only take notice of the one sent to Gideon the Chancellor. Is that ok, or is the law playing the wrong role here? This is my point about Twitter being full of this stuff but it’s only when a well-educated rich white woman with media influence and journalist friends complains about it that something gets done. If the law is applied then it must treat everyone equally.

    As to the slippery slope argument…

    I don’t really consider these ‘arguments’ as such, but rather worries. So I’m not saying that by allowing the state more power in criminalising what you tweet on Twitter it will lead to further curtailing of our online freedom in other areas. I’m saying that I’m worried that it will! ;)

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Context is important, I uttered (among many other colorful phrases): “I’m going hunt you down and shove a grenade so far up your ass that you’ll taste the metal before your head goes boom” last night while playing online.

    This is fine in context, of course. But what if someone misinterprets the context, reports you, with the narrative that you’re an angry person who can’t control your violent urges? I mean, that could look like a threat (though in actuality it was just messing around). I don’t think it looks credible, but then I don’t think that Sorley or Nimmo’s threats look credible. It’s tricky ground.

  • Pingback: Are Twitter Fights Really Illegal? Surely Not! | Notung

  • http://skepticink.com/backgroundprobability/ Damion Reinhardt

    Your point about the effort of mailing something is well taken, but I’d point out that online efforts can be quite elaborately effortful. Take, for example, an obscure photograph of the person being threatened, in the course of doing something everyday, with realistic crosshairs convincingly superimposed using editing software. That takes a fair bit more effort than a typed letter, and may have a stronger subjective effect. (Incidentally, I hope none of your readers are evil.)

    As to inequality of treatment, suppose that JQN, JDO, and CCP are all threatened and the police take notice of all comparably credible threats. Which threats and police responses are we most likely to read about? Probably the cases with the well-connected and/or media-savvy victims.

    My point about the pseudonyms is that the people who are easily caught for making threats online are less likely to have taken precautions like false names and Tor. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that less educated criminals are easier to catch.

  • Shadow of a Doubt

    I agree that there is always some shaky ground when things may vary contextually. However there is no context for Sorley + Nimmo’s threats which was not a direct statement of harm against CCP, whether they actually had the ability to deliver on them or not. In the end the line has to be drawn somewhere, though exactly where is hard to say.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    I agree with the first bit, but I think all the tweets that have brought about arrests so far have looked fairly effortless (though I think they set up multiple accounts, which does take a little bit of time).

    I think that we’re reading about all arrests relating to tweets, not just those sent to well-connected victims. It just so happens that they’re mainly all well-connected. I may be wrong about this, but CCP, Stella Creasy, Louise Mensch, Stan Collymore all spring to mind, where only Liam Stacey comes to mind as someone who abused a non-famous person (and even that only came to the public eye because he was indirectly insulting the critically ill famous football player Fabrice Muamba).

    Again, this is just a worry. I’m not saying that we should just let them off. I do believe that threats are serious business – I just worry that it’s not being applied consistently.

  • http://skepticink.com/notung Notung

    Yep I’m not trying to excuse these threats. They are directly threatening, they do look scary, and something should be done. It’s just that jail for a tweet seems intuitively wrong to me. Perhaps my intuitions are wrong though!