For anyone who hasn’t been following, 17-year-old Twitter user @Riley_69 (the ’69’ in the username was a bad omen in the first place) was a little disappointed in British diver Tom Daley for only coming fourth place. He expressed his opinion rather crudely and was later arrested for his thoughts.
See, Daley had previously said this in an interview with the BBC, referring to his deceased father:
Winning a medal would make all the struggles that I’ve had worthwhile. It’s been my dream since a very young age to compete at an Olympics. I’m doing it for myself and my dad. It was both our dreams from a very young age. I always wanted to do it and Dad was so supportive of everything. It would make it extra special to do it for him.
So when Daley did not win a medal, @Riley_69 figured this was the appropriate thing to say:
You let your dad down i hope you know that.
Daley expressed his displeasure, but @Riley_69 did not seem to care much for Daley’s feelings:
Hope your crying now you should be why can’t you even produce for your country your just a diver anyway a overhyped prick.
What struck me about that tweet was the choice to omit the apostrophe in “you’re”, yet include it in “can’t”, and the omission of any punctuation other than the full-stop at the end. I think this actually justifies the use of the term ‘half-literate’.
Moving along, our keyboard warrior later had this to say:
i’m going to find you and i’m going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat your a nobody people like you make me sick
And in response to criticism from others:
i dont give a shit bruv i’m gonna drown him and i’m gonna shoot you he failed why you suporting him you cunt
For this, Mr Riley was arrested. In fairness to him, when he saw the outcry that his tweets had caused, he did tweet an apology:
@TomDaley1994 I’m sorry mate i just wanted you to win cause its the olympics I’m just annoyed we didn’t win I’m sorry tom accept my apology.
please i don’t want to be hated I’m just sorry you didn’t win i was rooting for you pal to do britain all proud just so upset.
Kenan Malik doesn’t approve of the arrest (my bold):
… I am simply pointing out that once we allow concepts of incitement and threat to become so elastic, then we open up a broader problem for free speech. The reason for being wary of police action against someone like @Rileyy_69 is not because one wants to defend the abuse of Tom Daley, nor because one is sanguine about death threats, but because if we lose sight of the fact that threats have to be both credible and understood in context, then free speech in a broader sense becomes endangered. @Rileyy_69’s tweets, and not just to Tom Daley, were vile, abusive, obnoxious. But read in context, and with a bit of common sense, no one would take them as genuine death threats. This might be an individual craving attention, and perhaps even, as some have suggested, needing help, but not someone who is about to commit a murder.
I get where Malik is coming from, but I have to ask what makes him so sure and if he has really considered the consequences of Riley_69’s behaviour.
I completely understand the argument about free speech and I instinctively feel that curtailing any expression is a bad thing, however it is equally wrong to be absolutist about these kinds of rights. In many situations, absolute free speech will conflict with other fundamental rights and it is a fallacy to suggest that free speech must necessarily trump other rights in every situation.
Malik does recognise this, however I question why this particular instance is such an “elastic” interpretation. The boy very explicitly issued violent death threats against Daley amid very hurtful personal abuse. That kind of harassment and intimidation would be illegal if it were to take place in person or over the phone, the only reason that everyone is up in arms over this is that the communication took place online – a medium that is generally perceived as more remote and impersonal than other forms of communication.
I think that it is about time we drop this assumption that online communication is necessarily less harmful or serious than the same communication offline. Unfortunately, if Mr Riley did decide to go after Daley offline, he would not be the first psycho to take an online obsession and act on it IRL (see, eg, HERE, HERE and HERE) and there have been quite a few cases of online harassment that have led to the victim’s suicide (see, eg, HERE, HERE and HERE).
On a slight tangent, online communication is the primary means of radicalising
Western individuals who later commit terror attacks. The late Anwar al-Awlaki from Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, the recent subject of one of Obama’s drone strikes in Yemen, was particularly adept at finding vulnerable Muslims online and coaxing them into committing acts of terror – the Fort Hood shootings being an example.
I say ‘slight’ tangent because, while the attacks wouldn’t have occurred but for Awlaki’s communicating with shooter Nidal Malik Hasan directly, most of the vile antisemitic/anti-American extremist propaganda that Hasan had access to before Awlaki approached him was distributed online.
The argument that people should just “challenge” these points of view are valid to an extent, but this method is limited. Open debate does not sway the kind of extremists who believe that all of society is lying to them and it is their duty to kill others; it will not prevent a psychotic stalker from chasing-down a victim; and it does not make victims of harassment feel any less harassed, so will not prevent their being driven into depression and suicide.
Free speech and open debate is vital for our society, but we have to recognise that the cost of not punishing some forms of speech is higher than the cost of prohibiting them.
It’s a grey area, but from where I sit, “i’m going to find you and i’m going to drown you in the pool you cocky twat your a nobody people like you make me sick” is over that line.