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Twitter “Joke Trial” No Laughing Matter

November 15, 2010

A tweep in the UK has been arrested and fined for posting a message on Twitter threatening to blow up northern England’s Robin Hood Airport if it didn’t reopen in time for his flight. You can read the full article, including material from the New York Times, here.

This case highlights two important aspects of any social media interraction that users should be mindful of:

  1. Social media is, and should be, subject to the usual laws and rules of our society. A bomb threat will be taken seriously no matter the medium on which it is made. Posting such a threat on social media does not somehow make it exempt from the quite acceptable reaction of police intervention. Conversely, if such a threat was made on social media, not investigated, and then carried out there would be an absolute uproar.
  2. Context is lacking on social media unless you explain yourself. It is not necessarily obvious that this threat was a joke. We can’t see facial expressions, body language or hear irony in the tone of voice. It is important to understand this when you are trying to convey meaning on social media; have you explained yourself in context?

I mean really, what was this guy thinking??

P.S. Thank you to @llanover for pointing this case out to me 🙂

  1. Two good points Vivienne. It’s something we need to keep in mind with all of our online utterances; whether it’s in email, Facebook, Twitter or anywhere else.

    Many people seem to think the rules of the physical world are suspended online when, if anything, the effects of ignoring them can be far worse. This is a point I made in a recent post;

    I think though in Paul Chambers’ case we should be cutting him a bit more slack as that Seattle Times article you link to is somewhat slanted against him.

    Jack of Kent, one of his solicitors, has a timeline of the case on his blog;

    What we should keep in mind is Mr Chambers was unfortunate to be caught at the junction of three UK trends; terrorism hysteria, increasing authoritarian powers and a very effective tabloid campaign demonising social media.

    The real concern of all of us who’ve been following the case is that while Paul Chambers’ words were silly, the reaction of the investigating police, DPP and the courts has been wildly disproportionate.

    I’m not sure what we as individuals can really take from that. The lesson seems to be that if the authorities want to make an example of you, they will.

    • Thanks for your comment Paul – what a great blog by David Green re Paul Chambers. Having read the full case (which I admit I had not done prior to my blog) I agree that Paul Chambers is most definitely being made an example of. Attempting to sit on the fence (!) I can see why the authorities might do this, albeit unfairly – it would ensure that they set a precedent and minimise the risk of having to deal with multiple such “threats” being made on social media sites.

      Terrorism threats are generally dealt with in a disproportionate manner – you most certainly wouldn’t even hint at a joke about a bomb in your bag while checking in at an airport and this is because it is dealt with so severely.

      I think I would also have to tone down my comments about context in this case – it’s hard to see how his tweet could be interpreted as anything but a joke when you take into account the exclamation marks and language used.

      Still, it’s a good example of how a misplaced tweet can go very badly wrong.

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