Following the conviction of Liam Stacey, I’ve become aware that, apparently, being offensive is a jailable offense in the UK. Does that make any sense to anyone?
Here’s a quick breakdown of the case in the form of highlights from the BBC’s coverage:
A student who admitted posting racially offensive comments on Twitter about footballer Fabrice Muamba has been jailed for 56 days.
Swansea University student Liam Stacey, 21, from Pontypridd, admitted inciting racial hatred over remarks about the Bolton Wanderers player, who collapsed during a FA Cup tie at Tottenham.
Stacey tried to “distance himself” from the tweets by claiming his account had been hacked, the court was told.
He later tried to delete his page but was arrested the following day at his student house in Swansea.
When interviewed by police, Stacey said he had been drinking since lunchtime on Saturday and was drunk when he made the comments.
Stacey was initially released on bail pending sentence and was ordered not to use Twitter and other social networking sites.
Jim Brisbane, chief crown prosecutor for CPS Cymru-Wales, said: “Racist language is inappropriate in any setting and through any media.
“We hope this case will serve as a warning to anyone who may think that comments made online are somehow beyond the law.”
Let’s be clear: the things he wrote were foul and I absolutely do not support them, it actually depresses me that anyone can hold such opinions during my lifetime. There are, however, two things that I need to address before I start sloshing around my scorn bucket – culture and context.
By ‘culture’ I mean the Twitter or online culture in which Stacey was operating. Internet culture is a moveable feast that tends to differ widely depending on the site you’re on and the attitudes of the most active users on that site – something recently summed up rather nicely by the superior web comic XKCD.
Twitter is one of the sites that exhibits an internet sub-culture – as far as I know it is one of the oldest on the web – that results in a lot of users deliberately trying to bait other users into reactions, anger often being the preferred outcome. According to the Know Your Meme link above, this habit comes from the early 80s and continues to thrive in forums, online gaming, comment streams and, obviously, social media. The one to one access granted by the supposedly direct availability of celebrities on Twitter makes them an even better target than Youtube commenters. It is interesting to note that, unlike other twacism rows it doesn’t appear that Stacey actively directed the tweets to Muamba.
While trolling (as it is known) is irritating, it is a pursuit that many people engage in. If it were not, his comments would be unmitigated nastiness; as it is, he’s doing something vaguely normal, albeit in a horrendous way towards a target with no way of retaliating.
The second issue is context. If being ‘grossly offensive’ is grounds for a sped up trial and conviction, the Daily Wail would have virtually no non-incarcerated staff. Obviously, there is a power or influence element to this narrative that hasn’t been properly unpacked. As with a great many of law enforcement involvements with the online community, there remains a nagging doubt that there is enormous danger of the ‘protection vs free speech’ pendulum swinging far too far towards authorities that are very unlikely to support the latter – the announcement of a resurrected UK law is yet another warning sign.
I am not the only one who sees this ruling as a problem. The Council of Europe Human Rights Commissioner, Thomas Hammaberg, condemned the sentencing as ‘excessive‘ calling for a new approach to dealing with online freedoms. Joseph Harker, in the Guardian’s Comment Is Free section, made the point that cracking down in such a way on one high profile but, ultimately, harmless case of a young man being racist and unpleasant does little to change things:
At the moment, it seems, the criminal justice system is unleashing all its energy on the little guys. Twitterers, train ranters, even footballers – for venting their emotions in public. These are all issues which, a few years ago, would have gone mostly unnoticed by all but the victims. Now, though, these incidents are likely to be recorded, replayed, retweeted, stuck on YouTube and viewed by millions. And the state seems keen to go after these “quick wins” to try to claim that racism will no longer be tolerated.
It’s an easy way of appearing to tackle an issue that is not an issue of Twitter. Racism exists in a broader and deeper way than a few drunken insults on the internet. The danger is reminiscent of the responses to the 2008 financial crisis – does austerity negatively affect the systematic failures of the banking system or does it simply paper over the cracks and leave the nascent middle classes to foot the bill? Does attacking one drunken man as an example of the unpleasantness of internet communication ignore the growing ethnic divides of modern Britain and allow the Government to go on an offensive against the internet community at the same time?
I know Twitter as a place of wonderful connectivity, somewhere I get news first and most diversely, somewhere I can debate directly with people I admire, somewhere I can encourage a wider range of people to become involved in human rights and other niche discussions. It is also a place of banality and, sometimes, pointless unpleasantness. But I choose to get what I want out of it, as do its other users. Take a look at most of the tweets Stacey sent: they are, by and large, insults sent to random users who condemned what he had said.
I don’t see much incitement when I watch the above video. I see people condemning repulsive behaviour in full public view, in real time for no other reason than genuine and personal ones. Next time a politician uses an unpleasant incident such as this to warn of the dangers of the internet – and, rest assured, there will be plenty of times we hear that speech – think about who they’re talking about; an irritating minority or that annoyed majority that sees them as a nuisance?