Since Twitter was created, there have been 163 billion tweets. Every second, 8,900 tweets are composed. 150,000 users sign up to Twitter everyday. It’s a big deal.
People use social networking sites for a variety of reasons. Some seize the opportunity to upload pictures of themselves sitting in front of a computer, others prefer to share “meaningful” song lyrics, while a few just want to discover what their favourite celebrity had for breakfast. Social media also acts as a ventilation system, allowing a user to fulminate frequently and vehemently to their heart’s content. Humans love to rant almost as much as they love watching a Korean man mime riding an imaginary horse. From cavemen to Kim Kardashian, the desire to express our feelings has been engrained into our genetic code.
However, the ever-evolving manner through which we communicate our feelings has changed dramatically – as has their impact. Back in the 15th Century, when the potential to ‘Retweet’ was fairly minimal, a man could find himself with a dagger at his throat for supporting the wrong jouster in a local tournament. The existence of Twitter has changed things. Every Saturday evening, after the Barclays Premiership football matches have ended, frustrated supporters converge on Twitter to claim that Manchester United are ‘cheating scum’, while Tottenham Hotspur are ‘just a bunch of yids’. It would seem that in the confines of a digital bedroom, people are overwhelmed by a sense of false security. Far too many users often tweet the first thing to enter their mind, without thinking of the consequences.
Twitter is an innovative tool which has enhanced the lives of many of its users. It acts as the live-feed of not just the disgruntled and “misunderstood” teenager, but of the world. From announcing the birth of a new baby to organising the distribution of relief during natural disasters, it has been adapted and moulded by its users to suit their needs. However, just as every human invention possesses a constructive and a destructive side, Twitter can also be used as a way to cause pain, suffering and confusion. Rumours and lies spread on Twitter faster than it takes for The Daily Mail to invent a new unproven cause for cancer. Every week Twitter’s users are informed that a minor celebrity has died. Unfortunately, to many of the users’ dismay, 99% of these statements turn out to be false. Moreover, there are numerous examples of thoughtless users who decide to refer to ‘niggers’ or ‘faggots’ in their spur-of-the-moment ‘how cool am I?’ tweets. Adopting the censorious nature of Kim Jong-Il’s governance of North Korea, the UK government has started to prosecute Twitter users who post malicious comments:
- On 17th March 2012, Bolton Wanderer footballer Fabrice Muamba had a cardiac arrest during the first half of an FA Cup match and his heart stopped for 78 minutes. To show their support for Muamba, around 700,000 Twitter users participated in the ‘#PrayforMuamba’ hashtag. Liam Stacey, a 21 year old from Wales, reacted in a different manner. He responded to the incident by posting ‘LOL. Fuck Muamba he’s dead !!! #haha’. He was sentenced to 56 days in prison for ‘inciting racial hatred’.
- A year before the London 2012 Olympics, the father of GB diver Tom Daley died from brain cancer. After missing out on a medal in the 10m Platform Diving during the Olympics, Daley received a tweet from an unnamed teenager, aged seventeen. It said ‘you let your dad down i [sic] hope you know that.’ The teenager was arrested and now has a criminal record.
- In 2010, Paul Chambers, a 28-year-old accountant, expressed his frustration about his local airport being closed by tweeting: ‘Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I am blowing the airport sky high!!’. He was fined £385 for sending a ‘menacing message’. However, the court’s original decision was dismissed in July 2012 after the Judge admitted that the tweet was not intended to be menacing.
These cases demonstrate that people are often willing to post views on Twitter that they wouldn’t necessarily express in a public situation. Often, the result of such tweets is to cause pain and suffering. Does it follow that the government should have the power to censor our tweets? No.
Those who want to censor our lives do not have the moral authority to decide what we can and what we cannot write and read. They infantilise us by assuming that we can’t discriminate between outrageous sentiments and ideas that are worthy of our support. By doing this, they deny us the freedom to decide for ourselves how to respond in accordance with our own individual moral autonomy. Essentially, they are trying to live our lives for us.
Twitter is one of the many instruments we use to articulate our right to free speech, and this right ought to be non-negotiable. Without it, we cease to realise an important dimension of our humanity – the ability to say what we want, encounter other points’ of view and then debate them. It is only through allowing people to speak freely that ignorance and bigoted prejudices can be recognised and altered. I’m not a massive fan of sexism, racism or homophobia. In fact, I am frequently repulsed by man’s potential to highlight the most trivial aspects of a person and consequently despise them for it. However, if we want to live in a free society, we have to be tolerant. Tolerance requires that ideas that we find abhorrent should nevertheless be freely communicated. A truly tolerant society has the confidence to deal with whatever lies, defamations or racial epithets are thrown at its citizens.
Sadly, some will use social networking platforms, such as Twitter, to publicise and spread malicious content. This is a price we pay for having free speech, the price for expressing ourselves, and the price for being human.
[Published in Minds Eye Magazine (2013]