The Tweets and the Trolls
Students studying media-related courses at universities across the country are increasingly being encouraged to tweet their reactions during lectures, but is this a step too far for social media?
The immediacy of feedback lecturers could receive and the necessity for brevity given the 140 character limit could well lead to effective and clear communication between students and lecturers – something often confined to an annual module evaluation and bogged down in departmental bureaucracy. With Twitter, lecturers would be able to know quickly what works, and what does not; no academic would persist with an unpopular or flawed style for a whole year this way.
However, as anyone who uses Twitter fairly frequently will know, it is full of ‘trolls’, as the computer screen is seen as an excellent barrier to repercussion. Although the trolling community may have been stunned by the recent imprisonment of both 21 year-old student Liam Stacey, who posted racist and abusive tweets about Fabrice Muamba as he lay comatose (‘LOL. f**k Muamba he’s dead #haha’), and Sean Duffy, who sent abusive messages to the families of dead teenagers on Facebook, their number has not decreased.
Whilst the quality of a lecturer is a less sensitive issue than race or teenage death, it is likely that less popular lecturers would receive a stream of abuse – mainly just declarations of boredom, but nonetheless, criticism which could not be considered constructive. It would also be far too tempting for some to make comment on the appearance or mannerisms of their lecturer, rather than the quality of their work.
Unfortunately, this idea which would almost inevitably be tarnished by trolls, and this uncomfortable truth leads us to a pertinent question: as social media gradually encroaches on more and more aspects of our lives, how do we tackle the issue of trolling? For those unfamiliar with this term, ‘trolling’ is a phenomenon which consists of posting inflammatory comments on sites like Facebook and Twitter, always with the express intention of causing maximum offence. Although it is a term which does not fully do justice to its inherent distastefulness, it is undoubtedly a problem.
People may claim it is an avoidable one – if you don’t go on Twitter or Facebook you won’t encounter them – but then again, we should not have to stop doing something we enjoy just because of the insensitivity of certain individuals. It is also becoming increasingly difficult to avoid social media, as big businesses have taken the first steps to exploit its vast popularity by advertising jobs on Twitter and Facebook. Indeed, research has shown that in 2011 the number of job adverts posted on Facebook rose by 1000 per cent and by 500 per cent on Twitter. With youth unemployment still relatively high, it would be more than misguided to avoid these websites entirely.
The problem is though, as previously stated, no one expects what they say on social networking sites to be subject to the same moral or legal repercussions as normal publishing, when, in effect, it is. Trolling is seen as a joke to many who do not realise the serious repercussions persistent abuse can have; keyboard warriors who think they are contributing to the general trend of online banter can actually be causing real harm. Social media has allowed people like Stacey to cause offence instantly with very little thought, and many celebrities, like Matt Lucas and Micah Richards, have be dubbed ‘Twitter Quitters’ for leaving the site as a result of persistent abuse. Extreme trolling has even been made illegal under the 2003 Communications Act 2003 which states that it is an offence to post online messages which are ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’.
Whilst the aforementioned trolls’ posts were undoubtedly abhorrent and cruel, and should not be ignored, in a society which claims to support personal liberties, should these moral transgressions really be punished by imprisonment? Surely it is wrong that as a society we should imprison people for speaking, however distasteful their words? In the case of Stacey, the punishment is almost as repulsive as the crime.
Freedom of speech, with its many complications and intricacies, should always be protected. In Britain we are lucky enjoy such a luxury – one which many countries do not benefit from. However, sadly, in this sentencing this principle seems to have been forgotten. Stacey’s posts were indeed, ‘grossly offensive…[and]…of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’, and we certainly cannot excuse his actions, but they were not prison-worthy. His small amount of followers would have inevitably known him to be a troll, and would have taken his words with an entire bag of salt.
Less worrying, but worrying nonetheless, is that we are told that prisons are overcrowded and underfunded, yet we are throwing people in prison purely to make examples of them. This is not a new phenomenon, but two prominent cases in the last two years have been a result, directly or indirectly, of social media. Many of the rioters in London and elsewhere, spurred on by the opportunities offered by online communications, have been given lengthy sentences which would not normally be warranted by their crimes in order to emphasise to the nation that this sort of behaviour is simply not acceptable. Rioters were imprisoned for stealing bottles of water, bags of rice – almost worthless items.
Whilst this may have been both effective and justifiable given the tinderbox atmosphere of the summer riots, it is unlikely that the sentencing of Stacey and Duffy will have a lasting impact on the proliferation of trolling, although this may be what it takes to modify cruelty of online trolls, at least for the time being. They will never be wiped out, but they may think a little more about the potential offence caused before they post in the future.