I’ll come clean; I’m not that big a fan of social media, which I believe today, makes me a bit anti-social. I use Twitter for fun (alright, looking at pictures of shoes) and LinkedIn cos a recruitment agent told me to. The rest of them don’t really Google Plus my world, does anybody feel a “but” coming?
That but is if I was a full time user of the social media platforms, I’d expect to be able to say what I liked on them, cos I like to say what I like – unless working on a clients social media campaign.
I say this from a sensible standpoint, I’m a reasonable human being, I take a situation on its merit and I certainly don’t attack people verbally for no reason. Sadly though, there are a lot of people out there who don’t share my view.
You may ask the most obvious question here, which is why do it? Why would you use a social media platform for the purposes of abusing, harassing or threatening other people? The answer may seem pretty straightforward, but the figures suggest otherwise.
The roll call of those being prosecuted for offensive social media posts is growing, crimes which involve social media platforms have increased 780% since 2008, with 650 charged in 2012 for offences on social media sites including harassment, stalking and grooming and racial abuse.
So if the numbers are going up instead of down, it would appear that the message isn’t getting through. The answer may lie in expectation.
We live in a society where the idea of free speech reigns, this isn’t Orwell’s 1984 we’re living in (isn’t it?), we should be able to say what we like, when we like and if others don’t like it then that’s just tough, as long as we’re reasonable. And as a natural extension of the modern society we live in, this should extend across to our social media usage. Well, only to a point, but where and when is the line crossed?
This is where it sometimes gets difficult and it’s this which has seen a lot of people get into hot water because of posts on social media, Paul Chambers being the biggest cause celebre of the subject in recent times.
The majority of people prosecuted for these social media crimes, Chambers included, are charged under section 127 of Communications Act – current source of the term “grossly offensive” and it’s “grossly offensive” which is the sticking point, when does banter with your mate Big Dave down the pub change from banter to “grossly offensive” and when does the same apply on social media?
The test for “grossly offensive” is laid out in the case of DPP v Collins  where the ruling stated;
…..”Usages and sensitivities may change over time….there can be no yardstick of gross offensiveness otherwise than by the application of reasonably enlightened, but not perfectionist, contemporary standards to the particular message sent in its particular context. The test is whether a message is couched in terms liable to cause gross offence to whom it relates…….
So, in a nutshell, who can be considered to be “reasonably enlightened” in this scenario? Well, the simple answer is, we should all be. We should all be exercising caution when it comes to this kind of stuff, we all self-edit on a daily basis because that’s how we get through the day and that’s how we keep friends. If we can do it personally, then why do so many lose the ability the minute they’re limited to 140 characters. Surely the limited space to interact on social media should make what you have to say more valuable, not less? Maybe it’s just me?
Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer has today stated that too many cases prosecuted would have a “chilling effect on free speech” and posts which may have been made in haste and maybe under the influence but which have been removed quickly “don’t necessarily need to be prosecuted”. He’s right, they don’t, they just to exercise a bit more common sense in future.
Under no circumstances do I argue that people who post on social media anything that falls under the description of “grossly offensive” should feel the full force of the law. They deserve to.
People who suffer poor service in stores, felt frustration at another transport delay or have just felt strongly enough to express an opinion about divisive moral issues and have taken to Facebook or Twitter to have a moan about it aren’t criminals, nor should they be treated as such.