Should authorities intervene or does this infringe on the freedom of speech?
Social media brings out the worst in some of us. Why else would you set up a Facebook group to pay a twisted tribute to “legend” Dale Cregan? (Cregan was arrested on suspicion of murder, for his alleged involvement in the killings of two police officers in Manchester.) Or write that “Every police officer’s death is a course [sic] for celebration”?
There should be no consolation in poor grammar either: such trolling seems to be a persistent phenomenon with so-called “tribute sites” appearing for the killer Raoul Moat – as well as the racist abuse aimed at Stan Collymore or Fabrice Muamba, or the sexist insults directed at Louise Mensch.
At least the police are taking action. It is illegal to send “grossly offensive” messages, according to the Communications Act 2003 (although few people probably knew that). Today a 22-year-old man was arrested in Netherley, Liverpool in the light of that act. The arrest is thought to be linked to a Facebook page that suggested Cregan should receive an OBE.
Elsewhere, on Thursday Liam Stacey began a 56-day jail term after sickeningly tweeting “LOL” and more when Fabrice Muamba collapsed on the football pitch. In June, Frank Zimmerman received a suspended 26-week prison sentence after sending offensive mail to Mensch, a former Conservative MP.
However, we are asking for a lot if we expect, or believe, that the police can get involved every time somebody makes grossly offensive remarks online. Unfortunately coppers wouldn’t do any other work, and so only a handful of the most high profile insults will result in an arrest or prosecution.
The Director of Public Prosecutions has now concluded that it is not in the public interest to prosecute Daniel Thomas, a semi-professional footballer, for a homophobic tweet directed at Olympic diver Tom Daley. Weighing on the DPP’s thinking was the fact that Thomas quickly deleted the tweet, apologised, and that the remark was only intended for a small group of followers.
It will always be hard for the police to tackle the decline in civility that seems to come the moment you hand people a computer, the internet and a darkened bedroom. Many would like to argue that such abuse is a necessary excrescence of the digital world, matched perhaps by the freedom that social media give to express and organise, as the #coverforgmp campaign demonstrates.
Yet it is hard to be sure that Facebook and Twitter could not do more. Facebook likes to talk about how content on the network is monitored by 900m users, any of whom can report abuse to a team of uncertain number and resource based in Dublin. Facebook doesn’t say how many pages it has taken down, how many complaints it gets, or how fast it works, but on the Cregan case will say it mainly took pages down because they were set up by people with false identities – for Facebook, the original sin.
Transparency, of course, would only give the public a chance to work out if Facebook does a good job in regulating its own network. Facebook, however, declines to be specific, as it presumably knows best – although at least by coming back with some information it beat Twitter. The micro-blogging service, as it often does, chose not to respond to a request for comment.
Pre-moderation is impossible for a social network, but everybody has access to a search function, including the owners of the network themselves. There will be Facebook tribute pages to the next person arrested on suspicion of murder too; one would hope that they could be deleted almost the moment they appear – and that it is not just left to the public to complain and the police to deal with the consequences.