Tweeting On the Wrong Side of the Law: Part 3

‘Keyboard Warriors & Free Speech’, our last in series of blog entries on Twitter and the Law. By now, I’m sure, we’re all familiar with the work of internet trolls. ‘Keyboard warriors’ too. A series of tweets sent from the comfort of their home can make a stranger’s life a living misery. They can also land the perpetrator in prison.

In 2012, 653 people faced criminal charges in England and Wales relating to comments posted on Twitter or Facebook. These cases involved the posting of abusive messages, and violently worded responses to such provocation, amounting to harassment, hate speech and threats to kill. The extent to which a tweet amounts to abuse as interpreted by the law, is based upon a subjective decision made by Police and Prosecutor. The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) states that a communication made in ‘bad taste’ or is ‘controversial or unpopular,’ causing ‘offence to individuals or a specific community’, in no way necessarily amounts to criminal activity. So what kind of offensive tweets do the courts prosecute?

Harassment: A series of tweets can contravene the Protection from Harassment Act 1997 ‘if a reasonable person in possession of the same information would think the course of conduct amounted to or involved harassment’. Therefore, tweets authored in a ‘course of conduct’, that caused alarm or distress may well result in a claim for damages, a fine, or imprisonment for up to six months.

Malicious: Alternatively, a tweet sent with the intention of damaging another’s business, goods or services through false statements (or reckless with the truth as to such) would be deemed a malicious falsehood by the law. This would potentially lead to a claim for damages and further compensation.

Offence: The Communications Act 2003, which has previously been mentioned in this blog series, can be engaged where a grossly offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing tweet occurs. An example of this was Paul Chambers’ notorious  ‘…otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high’ tweet, posted when Robin Hood Airport closed after heavy snow, thereby sending poor Paul’s travel plans into disarray. The Crown Court considered this to be menacing, but the High Court overturned its decision. The CPS has urged that only tweets carrying credible threats should be charged, whilst aggravating factors such as racism and prejudice, it recommended, should lead to increased sentences. Subsequently, the authors of tweets owing to a tone of ‘empty bombastic or ridiculous banter’, or ‘silly jokes or jokes in bad taste that can be brushed aside’, will not be punished under the Communications Act.

Additionally, there are a couple more general categories of tweets punishable by law.

Firstly, an impersonator on a Twitter account could be open to criminal charges for fraud if the subject of the impersonation, under the Fraud Act 2006, suffers loss or damage.

Secondly, a tweet with an intention to cause harm or intimidation may well invoke a criminal or civil wrong. UK law obviously has to strike a balance between privacy, free speech, and censorship, and social media users – both in commercial and individual settings – ought to be familiar with the legal provisions based on this balance. The powers that be at Twitter have recently made it easier to report individual tweets for abuse.

Twitter has updated its rules in relation to abusive behaviour and is employing extra moderation staff, which highlights an officially endorsed avenue to pursue in the event of online abuse, when an ill-thought response to provocation might otherwise land you in legal hot water. Remember, even if the tweet in isolation doesn’t give rise to a civil or criminal claim, it can be used to adduce evidence in an already existing case.

So there you have it – why trolling on Twitter is for twits!