Should you be legally liable for your Tweets?

It seems bizarre that in a nation of over a billion people riddled with poverty and daunting socio-economic challenges, so much attention would be given […]

It seems bizarre that in a nation of over a billion people riddled with poverty and daunting socio-economic challenges, so much attention would be given to one woman’s Facebook status. And yet when Indian Shaheen Dhada posted that closures of the financial capital for the funeral of a powerful politician connected to mob violence were “due to fear, not due to respect” and her friend Renu Srinivasan “liked” this, both women were promptly taken into custody. These arrests are two in a growing number across the world which bring into focus issues around social media and freedom of speech. Just last week Ricky Gervais came under fire again for his aggressive and controversial tweets and has previously apologised for using the word ‘mong’ (an old-fashioned term for Down Syndrome sufferers) in his Twitter feed. But Gervais has argued back at critics saying that “Offence is relative…it’s about feelings. So I think it’s difficult to say someone is objectively wrong. I don’t think being an idiot is against the law.”

Meanwhile in London, one teenager and two young men were arrested for making offensive comments about a murdered child on Twitter, writing a Facebook status that British soldiers should “go to hell” and posting a picture of a burning paper poppy, respectively. Hundreds of Brits are being persecuted every year for social media posts judged menacing, offensive or obscene. It is believed that behind the posts are young, mainly teenagers who find that glib online comments can bring prestige. Paul Chambers got a taste of this when in January 2010 he threatened to “blow Robin Hood airport sky high” because snowy weather stopped him from catching a flight to visit his girlfriend. Soon thereafter he found himself interrogated by anti-terrorist police. While he earned his own hashtag #twitterjoketrial and the support of Stephen Fry, he also found himself convicted, fined, unemployed and in legal debt.

Another danger of social media is the rate at which false information can go viral. Examples of this are the photographs of a wave-battered Statue of Liberty and sharks swimming in a suburban front yard in New Jersey allegedly due to Hurricane Sandy which went viral on twitter but later proved to be photoshopped.

But the results of social media listening aren’t all grim. Just a couple of days ago, CNN reported Jihadist social media posting led to the arrest of four Los Angeles men who were en route to Afghanistan to train with the Taliban. According to the FBI, they were planning to kill American soldiers and bomb government installations.

While the strength of the Internet lies in free expression, could it be that the volume has reached unmanageable chaos? There doesn’t seem to be an easy answer and for now the chaos continues.

About Anna Zawilska

I am reading for a DPhil in Computer Science concentrating on technology and education. My research interests lie around the intersection between technology and social issues.