Only last Thursday, the Twitterati was celebrating the fact that a judge finally realised a tweet about blowing up a UK airport was a joke. The offending tweeter, 28-year-old accountant Paul Chambers, was ‘completely vindicated’. But don’t be fooled. The Twitterati’s love of freedom of speech does not extend, it seems, to those whom its members dislike. People, that is, like the teenage ‘troll’ arrested yesterday for ‘malicious communications’.
‘You let your dad down, I hope you know that.’ This is not the first thought that will have popped into the minds of most people who saw diver and teen pin-up Tom Daley fail to win a medal in the synchronised diving in the London Olympics. Not least because Daley’s father sadly died of a brain tumour last year. It is pretty clear that 17-year-old who tweeted this message from the account @Rileyy_69 to Daley, is an unpleasant character. Alongside other nuggets of abuse, he tweeted: ‘I’m going to find you [Daley] and I’m going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat, you’re a nobody people like you make me sick.’
Unpleasant? Yes. Heartless? Yeah, that too. But far more unpalatable was the censorious reaction to James’ tweets, which Daley prompted by retweeting these ill wishes to his followers. This mouthy kid from Weymouth, who on Twitter gives his name as Reece Sonny James, was then subjected to a sudden worldwide torrent of abuse as Twitter mobs felt licensed to let rip. James was attacked for being ‘the definition of a chav’, a ‘skinny topless posing gimp’, a ‘worldwide wanker’ who should have ‘died instead’ of Daley’s dad. The hashtag #GetRileyy_69Banned began to trend worldwide – and hundreds of people reported him to the police. Riley’s account was duly blocked, and he was arrested by Dorset police yesterday morning. ‘Good good. Well done Twitter police’, tweeted one individual upon hearing the news. ‘You can catch @Rileyy_69’s public ridicule on tomorrow’s news, Daybreak and This Morning. What a day he will have’, tweeted another.
Such praise of the Twitter police puts paid to the idea that Twitter has become a freer, less censorious place following the acquittal of Chambers. Far from it. The twitch-hunt of James – coming just a couple of days after tweeters were calling for Conservative MP Aidan Burley’s scalp after he criticised the opening ceremony – is a classic example of the way twitch-hunts enforce a modern-day conformism. Yes, there was notionally a ‘death threat’ in one of Reece’s tweets, but does anyone seriously think that 17-year-old Reece was going to leave Weymouth, track down Daley and actually drown him in a pool? This ‘threat’ was evidently an expression of emotional angst and hatred, not a serious proposition. Such comments require context, as footballer Joey Barton rightly pointed out on Twitter in response to Reece’s arrest: ‘I’ve had loads of death threats! Still here aren’t I. I just laugh my head off when I get them… Surely, if u were gonna kill someone you wouldn’t give them a headups.’
The Twitter police single out individuals who do not, as John Stuart Mill would have put it, ‘bend a knee to custom’, and make such a collective noise that authorities see fit to take action. In On Liberty, Mill warned of the ‘despotism of custom’ which was contrasted with the love of liberty. Custom, observed Mill, ‘proscribes singularity, but it does not preclude change, provided all change together’.
Twitter has become a twenty-first-century tool to ringfence the boundaries of debate and enforce custom. Led by the Twitterati and increasingly influential upon every bit of the media, it teaches us what it is acceptable to think and say – and woe betide anyone who does not ‘change together’ or who goes against the grain of the Twittermob. At best, your words will be dismissed out of hand as ‘trolling’; at worst, you will be banged up.
Following the arrest of James, who has now been let off with a ‘harassment warning’, people took to Twitter and indulged in celebratory fantasies about what should happen to James next: ‘Glad the little prick got arrested. Rileyy_69 is now gonna get absolutely anal raped in prison.’ One lamented: ‘Wish we still had capital punishment, could get Rileyy_69 hung.’ Others threatened to ‘hunt him down’ and ‘knock the fuck [out of the] scrawny cunt!’.
As Mill argued, for the despots of custom, ‘justice and right mean conformity to custom’. And with right on these tweeters’ side, of course, it is unlikely they will face the wrath of the Twittersphere and be grassed up to the cops for making ‘malicious threats’. And nor should they be. These twitch-hunters and Twitter police should, of course, be free to say whatever they want, no matter how bilious their remarks. Such is the nature of free speech, which – given the number of people calling for James to be banned from tweeting and put in prison – seems an alien concept to many of those cheering his arrest (despite their celebration of Chambers’ exoneration).
Equally, however, the rest of us should be free to tell the twitch-hunters that they are part of a big, informal and deeply intolerant drive to shut people up. And, in doing so, they help to make public debate more controlled, more polite and less free. While the speech of the Twitter police should be tolerated, they can – and should – be criticised for their conformist and oft-censorious actions.