Sunday, 21 August 2011

Social media and legal neutrality

Twitter and social media do not make certain things different.

A scam is still a scam, even if Twitter is used as part of con.

There are allegations by the highly regarded political and legal tweeter @PME200 on his blog as to the real life conduct of the person operating the "Lord Credo" account.

This is not the place to say whether such allegations are correct, though I note the operator of that account admitted to dishonesty before the account was deleted.

However, if the allegations are correct, they do not constitute a "Twitter con".

Instead it was a con that happened to involve Twitter, and not - say - the telephone or the postal service.

Similarly, the "incitements to riot" currently being charged in respect of Facebook are not "Facebook problems".

It just happens that was the medium which was used.

The fact that a social media platform was used should not, by itself, mean that an offence is any more or less serious as long as the requisite elements of the offence are otherwise made out.

This also extends to the Mabus affair (the subject of a thorough blogpost by the excellent Tim Farley).

Like many others in the on-line atheist (complete lack of) community, I had endless spam and death threats from Mabus. I personally regarded the threats as non-credible and deleted them along with the rest of the daily clutter in my inbox.

However, others took a different view (as they were fully entitled to, as it would be them and their families at risk), especially when the strange chap started turning up to events, and organised so as to successfully prompt a police investigation.

For me the Mabus affair was not a Twitter or social media issue; if there were death threats then the police should address their mind to them, regardless of whether the threats were in a tweet, an email, or on a postcard. If the police now take it further and prosecute, they are the best placed to make that decision.

In overall terms, the principle should surely be that the law should be neutral in respect of social media and internet-based publications: a con is a con, an incitement is an incitement, and a death threat is a death threat, regardless of whether it is on a social media platform or by some other medium.

Nothing should be a criminal act - or not be a criminal act - just because it was effected using social media.


No purely anonymous comments will be published; always use a name for ease of reference by other commenters.


SteelMagnolia said...

Good morning,

I have always thought of myself as street 'wise' but one can never be TWEETWISE for the simple reason anyone can be whom ever they wish hiding behind nicks and Avatar images on the Internet.

However, I had no idea who Lord Credo was or alleged to be, like wise PM200. I must confess at first I saw images of two very good looking men and thought they had had a lovers tiff...PM200 the injured party and venting his hurt on his blog. (Please forgive me PM200 for my thoughts )

I did follow Lord Credo and we had a couple of banters,I found him fun. I even offered to lend him my Jag when he claimed his car had broken down, maybe now I am glad I did not.

Either way, I follow on twitter people whose tweets I enjoy and never read their CV's. I have not been hurt by Lord Credo's prank as others seem to have been and I am still in posession of my lovely car which I may not have been !

Have a good sunday. xx

Schroedinger99 said...

Just as an aside (not particularly relevant to the main thrust of the article)...

I think it should be pointed out that the issue of whether Mabus's threats were credible (I received a lot of his nasty tweets too & simply "blocked & reported for spam") was not the only issue. There were also questions such as: might he become a real treat in future?; did he require professional help?; and should he be prevented from causing such a great deal of nuisance (& sometimes distress) to so many people even if he would never really physically harm them?

On the main thrust of the article I have nothing to add as I agree entirely.

hoopyjoe said...

What about Robin Hood Airport?

kris said...

My name is Lady Fanny of Omaha. I have a fabulous life and can introduce you to big brother stars, minor royals and cameron's cousin. Of course, I have a security clearance and I can introduce you to the one man who vetted me. I'm going to weasel my way into you and your friends' lives by inviting myself to stay at your cottage and drive your Jag.

Friends, this is the logical conclusion of the welfare state. Someone else needs to take care of me because I'm really, really naive. He's horrible, and I have no responsibility for being duped, no matter how preposterous the ruse.

Regrettably, I'm struggling to find any empathy for any alleged victims in this matter.

Perhaps they will now take the opportunity to "learn lessons"

Christine Burns said...

As you say, "a con is a con, an incitement is an incitement, and a death threat is a death threat, regardless of whether it is on a social media platform or by some other medium."

You could have added "a joke is a joke", except that in that instance the authorities have unfortunately failed to appreciate that in some notable cases

Jimmy Mac said...

Whilst missing the main tenet of JoKs argument, Steelmagnolia seems to have blundered into providing a class A example. Streetwise and "tweetwise" are identical other than the medium. If someone purports to be someone else at a party who are we to know? We could stand there chatting to an affable and charming criminal. Many of the recent rioters wore face masks to hide their true identity. I am having a great Sunday thanks SteelMag, it would be strikingly improved if I could borrow your Jag ;-)

paulathomas said...

One of the interesting things about social media like twitter and facebook is that the evidence is preserved. Had Mabus carried out his, mainly one to one harassment by more traditional means, say the telephone, all that could be said with certain is that a call had been made not what was said.

danielsmith said...

Completely agree with the main point here.

Having said that, there are still interesting discussions to be had about the different outcomes, if not in kind then in degree, that new(er) social media permits over older/cruder/slower/less available forms of communication. Someone like Mabus can effect more sustained anguish to more people through instant and mass communication than he might have done 20 years ago with some furious letter writing.

During a crisis, a medium like Twitter can rapidly inform, mislead or both. In the Brisbane floods earlier this year, unfounded rumours grew and mutated very quickly, whether through panic or more nefarious sources. However the Queensland Police helped stamp out a lot of these with their own "mythbusting" Twitter account.

We don't need to blame the medium in itself, but we'd be remiss if we didn't try to understand how it does affect the message: How fast in travels, how many see it, that words online are simultaneously vulnerable to both sneaky revision and long-term preservation. (Ask Claire Swire if she might have prefered working in an office circa 1950, where the rumour mill had to work for its grist.)

JoK, can you think of examples where the quantitative differences between new and old media might affect, say, the severity of a sentence, if not the overall verdict?

PS: Schroedinger99 with the best typo I've seen in a while: "might he [Mabus] become a real treat in future?" My guess is no!

skeptools said...

Thank you so much for the link and the kind comments about my post. I think you and your commenters are right on target here.

Charon QC said...

B e f o r e :


THE MASTER OF THE ROLLS: This is another case where one of two innocent persons has to suffer for the fraud of a third. It will no doubt interest students and find its place in the textbooks.

Mr. Lewis is a young man who is a post-graduate student of chemistry. He lives at Clifton near Bristol. He had an Austin-Cooper motor car. He decided to sell it. He put an advertisement In the newspaper offering it for £450. On the 8th May, 1969, in reply to the advertisement a man — I will simply call him the "rogue", for so he was — telephoned and asked if he could come and see the car. Re did not give his name. He said he was speaking from Wales, in Glamorganshire. Mr. Lewis said he could come and see it. He came in the evening to Mr. Lewis's flat. Mr. Lewis showed him the car, which was parked outside. The rogue drove it and tested it. He said he liked it. They then went along to the flat of Mr. Lewis's fiancĂ©e, Miss Kershaw, (they have since married.) He told them he was Richard Green and talked much about the film world. He led both of them to believe that he was the well-known film actor. Richard Greene, who played Robin Hood in the "Robin Hood' series. They talked about the car. He asked to see the log-book. He was shown it and seemed satisfied. He said he would like to buy the car. They agreed a price of £450. The rogue wrote out a cheque for £430 on the Beckenham Branch of the Midland Bank. He signed it "R.A. Green". He wanted to take the car at once. But Mr Lewis was not willing for him to have it until the cheque was cleared. To hold him off, Mr. Lewis said there were one or two small jobs he would like to do on the car before letting him have it, and that would give time for the cheque to be cleared. The rogue said: "Don't worry about those small jobs. I would like to take the car now." Mr. Lewis said? "Have you anything to prove that you are Mr. Richard Green? The rogue thereupon brought out a special pass of admission to Pinewood Studios, which had an official stamp on it. It bore the name of Richard A. Green and the address, and also a photograph which was plainly the photograph of this man, who was the rogue. On seeing this pass, Mr. Lewis was satisfied. He thought this man was really Mr. Richard Greene, the film actor, By that time it was 11 o'clock at night. Mr. Lewis took the cheque and let the rogue have the car and the log-book and the Ministry of Transport Test Certificate. Each wrote and signed a receipt evidencing the transaction. Mr. Lewis wrote'-

"Received from

Richard A. Green
59 Marsh Rd.,

the sum of £430 in return for Austin Cooper S Reg. No. A.H.T. 484 B chassis No. CA257 - 549597

Signed Keith Lewis.'"

The rogue wrote:-

"Received log-book No. 771835 and M.R.T. for Mini-Cooper S No. A.H.T. 484 B

R.A. Green."

Next day, the 9th May, 1959, Mr. Lewis put the cheque into the bank. A few days later the bank told him it was worthless. The rogue had stolen a cheque book written this £450 on a stolen cheque.

I have nothing further to add... the fraud of Credo aside.. most tweeters are outraged, I suspect, because of their injured pride....

Caveat Tweeter?

Jimmy Mac said...

good point danielsmith - I agree that the debate should eventually be about how society can adapt to a new medium. The case earlier this year "Lawyer Rodrigo Rosenberg accused the Guatemalan president of ordering his murder" that I read in the Guardian, stimulated this blurb from me:
(there's a link to the article in there)

Before we can debate the impact of these new(er) media though we do need to consider the issue raised by JoK.

On the other end of the spectrum, I have noticed a number of employers banning social and professional networking sites at work but not minding people talking on their phones. This is nuts.

Dave said...

There is a similarity with the bogus notion of "identity theft". If a fraudster presents themselves to a bank using someone else's credentials, the case is (or should be - IANAL) that of fraud by that person against the bank. The banks and corporations who introduced the term "identity theft" did so to make it seem that the fraud was against the owner of the account, shifting the blame from themselves. As with the social media example, the underlying crime should remain the same, even though the technology has changed.

Leigh Caldwell said...

I agree with JoK about the point of principle, but in line with other commenters would point out there are lots of differences in practice between the media.

I might be treated differently for suggesting around the table in a pub that we go out and beat up some Tottenham fans (assuming I did not follow through!) than if I called for it in a national newspaper. We all know Paul Chambers was joking because he was on twitter, but if he'd gone up to the security office at the airport and threatened to blow it up in a week, even with a smile on his face, we might not have had such sympathy with him when he was arrested. And Lord_Credo's twitter antics are relatively harmless compared to his (alleged) offline deceptions - though it's hard to separate the two as they clearly supported each other.

In some cases an action that would be innocuous in one medium or context is serious in another.

I don't think JoK is arguing for anything other than treating each case on its own merits, but those merits must include the medium of communication as one of the salient facts.

Leigh Caldwell said...

Similarly, in response to Jimmy Mac, the policy you describe (banning social media at work) might be completely sensible. I could certainly imagine a policy of banning personal phone calls but not personal letter-writing, on the basis that letter-writing is so rare as not to present any risk to productivity.

Dominic Sayers said...

I see hoopyjoe has mentioned Robin Hood Airport already, which steals some of my thunder.

I thought that part of the defence case in the Twitter Joke Trial was that it was just a tweet, and any fule kno that tweets are spontaneous conversational remarks, not to be given the same weight as (say) a threatening note made of letters cut from newspaper headlines.

In which case, the medium *is* relevant to determining whether an offence has been committed.


Jack of Kent said...


Fully aware of the Twitter Joke Trial case. I will be dealing with that in due course (there is currently a 'live' appeal so I cannot comment directly here and now).

However, my views on that case are fully consistent with the terms of the post above.

Matt Wardman said...

>Nothing should be a criminal act - or not be a criminal act - just because it was effected using social media.

That's a good summary.

I'm pleased that in the recent Facebook cases - one went to a trial with a sentence which may be going to be questioned (not offering a definitive opinion as I think that is also subject to appeal and Jack would delete the comment) while another resulted in a letter of apology when someone was deemed to have made a bad joke which scared people.

Katie Leaver said...

What you have to remember about social media is that as soon as you hit ‘send’ it’s out there. Even if you remove it from your own account, it’s still out in the public domain. So it’s always good to think before you tweet. It may be your own profile and just because it’s on the internet under password etc… does not make it above the law. A con is a con, online or offline, and there will eventually be consequences for one’s actions.
Katie Leaver, London Loves Jobs