After thoughtcrime, now we have tweetcrime

by Nathalie Rothschild
Spiked Online
May. 17, 2010

The conviction of a Twitter user for posting a joke about a bomb shows how insanely paranoid officialdom has become.

Isn’t the point of Twitter that you get a chance to sound off, broadcasting to the world what’s on your mind, heart and breakfast plate?

That is probably what Twitter-user Paul Chambers thought, too, until one frustration-venting tweet led to him being arrested and questioned for seven hours before his computers and mobile phone were confiscated. He later lost his job, was fined £1,000 and given a criminal record that will prevent him from pursuing a career as an accountant.

So what kind of grotesque revelation did Chambers post on his Twitter page? Did he admit to having committed some terrible crime perhaps? No, worried that a snowstorm, which had caused Robin Hood Airport in Doncaster, England to close down, would prevent him from flying out to Ireland to visit his girlfriend, Chambers simply tweeted: ‘Crap! Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!’

In other words, he only did what has become de rigueur for so many in our era of social networking: he vented his feelings in public while trying to be humorous at the same time. But it appears that our law-enforcement agencies treat throwaway remarks as a very serious business, so you had better start watching what you tweet.

Nobody could seriously have thought that Chambers was literally planning to blow up Robin Hood Airport. His tweet was simply the kind of hyperbole we all succumb to when angry, stressed or worried. Even if, for legal reasons, the police officers who arrested Chambers had to take his statement at face value, it would surely have dawned on them after questioning him for hours that he was no loose cannon.

It seems that Chambers’ real offence was not any intention to carry out an act of terrorism as a protest against flight-grounding snowstorms. Instead, he was convicted for uttering (or typing, in this case) words that could potentially have offended or frightened others, even though no one has actually claimed to have been affected by what Chambers wrote.

According to reports, none of Chambers’ Twitter followers thought there was anything particularly remarkable about his tongue-in-cheek tweet, and neither did the head of security at Robin Hood Airport. He was told about the cursory, curse-filled message by an off-duty airport manager who happened to come across it a few days after Chambers posted it in early January. Nevertheless, the security head, who graded the threat level of the message as ‘non credible’ and decided not to disrupt airport operations, was obliged to alert the police.

Chambers was arrested at his workplace for the offence of making a bomb threat, but was eventually charged, this week, under the Communications Act 2003 for sending a menacing message. In the name of protecting the public from brash, ill-considered remarks, law-enforcement agencies took the liberty of severely disrupting the life and career of a 26-year-old man just because he posted on the Web what was on his mind.

It is true that the so-called ‘Me Media’, the collective name for sites where users generate their own content, have given rise to a steady stream of inanities, with people revealing all sorts of details about their everyday lives and thoughts. But these are spaces that people use to keep in touch with friends, to tell various ‘followers’ what they are thinking and doing, and to post pictures or recommend articles and videos. On Twitter, users are asked to write brief messages about ‘what’s happening’, while on Facebook the status update box allows you to share ‘what’s on your mind’. The whole point of social networking sites is to put into words what would previously have been a private thought, and to share it with a circle of people.

So there was nothing out of the ordinary about Chambers’ message. He was simply following social-networking protocol. Yet law-enforcement agencies are seemingly determined to turn this case into a warning to anyone who dares formulate spontaneous thoughts. In fact, the real message being sent here is that we should watch, not only what we say, but also what we think. Chambers’ concerns after his unpleasant ordeal are understandable. He said: ‘Whatever happens now, I remain terrified. Terrified of speaking my mind, terrified that my life has potentially been ruined. Most of the authorities could see it for what it was, and yet I find myself with a conviction because the Crown Prosecution Service decided it was in the public interest to prosecute.’

The authorities’ impulse to monitor, control and restrict our activities on the Web ‘for our own good’ should be of concern to us all, whether you’re a social-networking enthusiast or sceptic. Clampdowns on ‘tweetcrimes’ are no less insidious and authoritarian than attempts to control offline thoughts, ideas and opinions.

Nathalie Rothschild is commissioning editor of spiked.













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