Social Media, particularly Twitter and Facebook, have for many businesses, organizations and public figures become the all important communications tool. Quick, free and with unimaginable reach. However again recently, close to home in Northern Ireland, we’ve seen that comments which we post on social media platforms such as Facebook can and do come back to haunt us. And this time the posts are not from children and young people but in one particular instance a ‘mature’ adult, of nearly 3 score years, holding a position in public office.
Examples are being made at the moment and the Ruth Patterson episode will be one of many. Just last Friday we saw DUP Councillor Ruth arrested in connection to an investigation into ‘the sending of grossly offensive communications and other serious criminal offences in relation to intimidation and encouraging criminal acts’. As charges were reviewed by the Public Prosecutions Service, in relation to comments about a proposed fictional ‘massacre’ at a (real) Nationalist March (try to keep up), Ms Patterson accepted responsibility and apologised for posting her views in the public domain. Ms Patterson’s ‘lack of judgement’ (her own words) again demonstrates the need for consideration before posting at all times, particularly for those in public office.
The PSNI responded to the incident with a statement warning the public of the dangers of misuse ‘ When a report is made to the PSNI regarding information posted on social media sites, officers will investigate and where a criminal offence has occurred, appropriate action will be taken’. This seems clear enough. Maybe some of our public figures missed the memo.
This and other recent events have again reinforced the fact that it’s not just our children and young people who can be impulsive, immature, thoughtless etc online. Sadly many adults, including those in positions of public office, are falling victim to the propensity to spew private views and thoughts into ill thought-out (if thought out at all..) public posts. Online they merrily go and into the public arena. Cue, authorities.
Note to self. Not a place you really want to be. Some Online Reputation Management anyone? You know who to call.
Provocative public speaking is nothing new. Especially not here in ‘Norn’ Ireland where emotive speaking wins votes however in the digital age public figures twitter posts and facebook comments are scrutinised and even the most well thought out and carefully crafted posts can be found wanting by the public. The press is jammed with cases of individuals and companies getting into hot water over inappropriate or negative online use. Twitter itself was scrutinised and found wanting by the public, due to it’s less than sensitive handling of the journalist and feminist Caroline Criado-Perez rape and death threats case. Perez’ tenacity has highlighted the torrent of abuse directed towards women online which previously had been tolerated. Arrests were made and the authorities reinforced the message that inappropriate and negative use can have serious repercussions to your reputation, employment, standing in the community and in extreme cases can lead to arrest, convictions and maybe even some jail time.
Police called on Twitter and Twitter called on Police. Ms Perez called on both. Twitter to ‘get a grip’ and police to ‘step up’ in their dealing of these now frequent incidents. End result – under intense media pressure, both are on high alert.
On a positive note, ‘Outing Your Troll’ is now the name of the game brave digital citizens are playing. A recent example was the Mary Beard case where her young (20 student troll, Oliver Rawlings, was named and shamed as she retweeted his comments to her 42,000 followers. One follower kindly offered Mary the little lad’s mum’s home address in the wealthy gated-home area of Hale Greater Manchester. Oliver promptly apologised, left the country and is ‘recovering’ from the backlash on his parents yacht in Marbella. This unfortunately may not be an option in the fallout for most young mis-users. But they can always dream.
Both Oliver Rawlings and Jack Riley, the young mechanic detained by police after subjecting Walthamstow MP Stella Creasy to rape and death threats were described as coming from ‘model’ families, and we are told that their comments were ‘totally out of character’. Just normal young guys then, who happen to enjoy the sport of threatening female public figures with rape and violence. But to be fair, more likely, ‘normal’ young guys who thought they could get away with murder online.
Threats of sexual violence are increasing towards women in public office and even in towards those just expressing a strong opinion. But that’s another blog.
Examples are being made at the moment and will continue to be. 100’s of trolls were convicted last year. According to the CPS over 1,700 cases were brought to court last year, although this represents only a tiny fraction of the abuse. You can look forward to 6 months in jail or a £5,000 fine under the Malicious Communications Act (1988) if convicted.
Our friends McKinty and Wright Solicitors, Belfast, who keep us up to date on online legalities, point out that although prosecutions in NI will more usually be brought under s127 of the Communications Act 2003, the consequences are just as serious. ‘A successful prosecution under this legislation will leave the individual with a criminal record and all that entails’ media lawyer Paul McDonnell tells us. He cautions ‘In my experience, the PSNI is now much more vigilant in relation to policing potentially unlawful activity or exchanges on social media. Members of the public are also increasingly prepared to explore the legal options available to them if social media posts stray into areas of defamation, harassment and breach of privacy.’ So there you have it, a disgruntled facebook ‘friend’ may now be seek legal representation, rather than slugging it out online.
Many digital citizens as well as the authorities are not willing to participate in or ignore the Free for All the Internet has become. Significant efforts by individuals, governments and organisations are being made to tame the ‘Wild West’ web and there will be casualties. So take care out there. Despite the cries of free speech, there’s little tolerance for abuse, ‘incitement’ and misuse at the moment online. And who’s to say that’s a bad thing. Isn’t it time more emphasis was placed on educating young people on positive online communication in our schools and communities. And maybe a few of our public servants too.