Prosecutor to launch consultation on social media guidelines

The Director of Public Prosecutions has announced a consultation to establish clear guidelines on prosecutions involving social media . In a statement on The Crown Prosecution Service website announcing that footballer Daniel Thomas — investigated for allegedly homophobic tweets about Olympic divers Tom Daley and Peter Waterfield — will not be prosecuted, Keir Starmer QC said:

“To ensure that CPS decision-making in these difficult cases is clear and consistent, I intend to issue guidelines on social media cases for prosecutors. These will assist them in deciding whether criminal charges should be brought in the cases that arise for their consideration. In the first instance, the CPS will draft interim guidelines. There will then be a wide public consultation before final guidelines are published. As part of that process, I intend to hold a series of roundtable meetings with campaigners, media lawyers, academics, social media experts and law enforcement bodies to ensure that the guidelines are as fully informed as possible.”

Starmer and the CPS faced severe criticism for the handling of Paul Chambers’s “Twitter joke trial“. Chambers, who was found guilty of sending a “menacing communication” after he joked about blowing up Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, had his conviction overturned in July of this year.

It emerged today that a man has been arrested under the Communications Act 2003 for allegedly setting up a Facebook page praising Dale Cregan, the Manchester man accused of killing two police officers.

Tom Daley and how to deal with Twitter fools

The tale of the Twitter abuse of Olympic diver Tom Daley has dominated social media today. Daley, who came a disappointing fourth along with synchronised diving partner Pete Waterfield in their event yesterday, was subjected to abuse, then apologies, then more abuse by a Twitter user. This morning, Dorset police said they had arrested a 17-year-old in a guest house in Weymouth for “malicious communications”.

I genuinely don’t want to get into the arguments on the specifics of this case, as the teenager hasn’t been charged, so I think we need to actually see what transpires before taking a definite position.

The above sentence is 166 characters, and therefore unsuitable for Twitter. But I wonder is the sentiment incompatible too?

It feels incredibly fogeyish to complain about the pace inflicted on us by social media, but I still think it’s a point worth making. The instant nature of the medium seems sometimes to affect how we think: we have to rush to judgment before the story passes us by. We have to offer our approval, show our disdain, and most worryingly, we have to demand action.

The first “Twitter mob” I can remember was the case of Jan Moir’s distasteful Daily Mail article on the circumstances of the death of Boyzone star Stephen Gately. Thousands tweeted their disapproval. 25,000 registered complaints with the Press Complaints Commission. The commission refused to censure Moir. Twitter again exploded in outrage.

Two-and-a-half years on, that looks mild. In the past year, we’ve seen examples of people getting arrested for saying stupid, crass, offensive things on social media — Azhar Ahmed insulting soldiers on Facebook, Liam Stacey wishing Fabrice Muamba dead and then descending into racist abuse. In the case of Stacey, hundreds of people reported him to the police, and there was barely contained glee when he was arrested and subsequently jailed.

I worry that this will become the norm: Man says nasty thing on the internet, nice people get upset by nasty thing, nice people demand something be done about nasty thing, police pursue easy conviction (all the evidence is online after all, and there are a million willing witnesses), nasty man gets convicted, and everybody slaps each other on the back for having done their bit. The thrill of active netizenship.

This could end up corrosive: increasingly narrowing the online social sphere so it is eventually only available to the articulate and right-thinking, and fools will suffer real-world punishment.

It doesn’t feel much like free speech. We need to start thinking about better ways of dealing with hurtful, crass speech.

Padraig Reidy is news editor at Index on Censorship