Is it right to arrest Twitter trolls?

Tom Daley gets ready to diveIt’s been a good week for Twitter outrage, but a bad week for the people at the centre. Diver Tom Daley has been on the receiving end of some vicious tweeting; a journalist for the Independent was chucked off Twitter for criticising NBC over shoddy Olympics coverage (though since reinstated), and a 17 year-old has been picked up from a guesthouse, arrested  and given a harassment warning as the presumed sender of the abusive tweets to Daley.

Perhaps it seems odd to include the alleged perpetrator of the abusive tweets in the ‘bad week’ round up. But I’m not the only person wondering if arrest seems a little extreme.

Before I become the victim of a twitter flaming myself – let me explain. What happened to Tom Daley was horrible. He had just come fourth in a major event, his dad died just a few months earlier. He’d be feeling pretty delicate. Receiving abuse referencing his father on Twitter was not what he needed. There was absolutely no justification for what @Rileyy_69 said (you can see some of the language he used in this tag cloud).

In fact, this Riley chap seems to take great pleasure in abusing people. Handily, his rather abusive Twitter history has been collated into a Google doc here for the world to see. Frankly, he was headed for trouble.

Technically, it is thought that Daley could bring charges if he wanted to (though whether they’d stand in court is another matter). And there are many baying for blood that say the abuser deserves a sharp shock.

But should all hateful, social media bullies be arrested? And if so, why did it take abusing someone in the public eye for it to happen?

Twitter is a public forum. Just as anyone who has ever taken any form of public transport will tell you: if you let everyone in, sooner or later you have to deal with someone that stinks (literally or otherwise). There are bullies in every playground and even some of the workplaces in the UK. Of course they are on the internet. It’s a giant playground where they can pretend to be invisible.

With the famous #Twitterjoketrial just concluded and Louise Mensch MP’s troll sentenced, there have been precedents set for dealing with threats on Twitter and other channels. How do the two cases compare?

Unfortunately there are no real answers, just a lot of difficult questions. Does trolling someone on Twitter via a couple of tweets equate to emails threatening their kids or notes through their letterbox? Is it a sustained campaign of abuse? The jury is still out.

Mensch received a personal threat via email – but threats on Twitter are made in public. Does that reduce their impact? Does it make them less likely to execute threats – is it just bravado? Many are arguing that this is the case here. There’s no doubt that the alleged perpetrator certainly got back plenty of abuse as a counter to his initial tweets.

Should Tom Daley have even been handling his own Twitter account single-handedly during this period? He is tweeting as an individual, but perceived as a brand by followers. Much has been made of educating Olympians on how not to #fail on Twitter – but have they been advised how to handle trolls? It seems to be left up to individual preference. Because sure as anything, if you’re in the public eye, there will be trolls. It’s easy to understand why Daley would have retweeted the hurtful comment – he was feeling a little thin-skinned, and it was easy to do. It also rallied public support behind him (over 100k likes to one tweet alone). But witness the actions of British weightlifted Zoe Smith, who saw the trolls, noted their actions and went on to break a record in order to ‘stick two fingers up’ at her online abusers.

Twitter is fairly self-policing – trolls are outed and the whole network sometimes seems powered by righteous indignation. The site has mechanisms for reporting abuse. And as long as it stays on Twitter, if abuse can be resolved by Twitter banning, removing people, then that would be a good first step. It would break the momentum and kill the story.

If it then moves outside Twitter, into email, or if someone repeatedly opens other Twitter accounts, then perhaps that’s a police matter. That’s a sustained and threatening campaign of abuse, not just a random couple of insults, no matter how hurtful and personal they are. The Lord Chief Justice even protected “Satirical or iconoclastic or rude comment, the expression of unpopular or unfashionable opinion […]even if distasteful to some or painful to those subjected to it” in the Joke Trial verdict last week. It would be hard to argue this wasn’t a painful, rude comment.

Arresting horrible people might be satisfying in the short term. But while I feel nothing but sympathy for Daley, there needs to be some sort of measured behaviour around online trolls, or the police are going to have a field day when they discover YouTube comments.