A tale of two Twitters

Talking trash is cringeworthy, not criminal

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It's a funny old internet. Last week, everyone on Twitter was outraged at attempts to prosecute somebody for what they said on Twitter. Yesterday, everyone was outraged at Twitter's apparent censorship of journalist Guy Adams. And last night, everyone on Twitter was demanding, er, censorship and prosecution of a teenage Tweeter.

Last week's case was the Paul Chambers "Twitter Joke Trial"; last night's involved an unnamed 17-year-old who, as @rileyy_69, sent a bunch of abusive tweets to Olympic diver Tom Daley.

Chambers threatened to blow up Robin Hood Airport and the teenager allegedly threatened to drown Daley and stab another Twitter user, and it's quite obvious that neither threat was remotely serious.

There's a big difference between the two cases, though. Chambers picked on an airport, but rileyy_69 picked on a famous figure with a quarter of a million followers. When Daley retweeted the boy's (appalling) message, that RT unleashed the mob and ended with an arrest.

That makes me extremely uncomfortable, for two reasons: first, because demanding prosecution of online idiocy leads to travesties such as the Twitter joke trial; and second, because there's something of 1984's Two Minutes Hate to it.

Remember Microsoft's slogan, "Where do you want to go today?" Maybe Twitter's should be "Who do you want to hate today?"

Hit them with your Twitter stick

I'm not defending what the teenager did - I'd have been shocked, saddened and furious if he'd been sending that stuff to me - but when someone's Twitter account rockets from a few hundred followers to more than 50,000 in a couple of hours and their behaviour gets worse, it's clear that they're being goaded.

Maybe he's an idiot. Maybe he was drunk. Maybe he needs help. What he didn't need was thousands of people picking on him and making a bad situation worse.

Famous figures have an enormous amount of power, and if you RT an offensive post to hundreds of thousands of people it's a dog whistle, whether you intend it to be or not. The result is that lots of people break out the flaming torches and pitchforks, and of course things then get out of hand.

Rileyy_69 didn't start off with death threats; those came after the Twitter mob paid him a visit and poked him with their Twitter sticks.

When the Daily Mail does it, we're appalled; when a famous person's followers do it, we should be too. It doesn't matter how the story started; if the strong are intimidating the weak, it's wrong. Rileyy_69 should have been blocked, not bullied.