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ABC News, 30 March 2012

If you thought it was only authoritarian states like China or Iran that imprisoned pesky bloggers and tweeters, think again.

This week, Britain became a fully paid-up member of that clique of illiberal intolerant, tweeter-harassing states.

On Tuesday, at Swansea Magistrates Court in Wales, Liam Stacey, a student, was imprisoned for 56 days for writing offensive tweets.

Fifty-six days. Two months. In an actual jail. For tweeting. It needs to be spelt out like that in order to show how shocking it is that in the 21st century, in a nation that gave us such great warriors for freedom as The Levellers and John Stuart Mill, a young man has now been banged up for expressing his thoughts.

Stacey’s thoughts were far from pleasant ones. In fact they were offensive and repugnant.

On March 17, Fabrice Muamba, a 23-year-old black football player for Bolton Wanderers, collapsed with cardiac arrest during a match against Tottenham Hotspurs. Many people were shocked, and before long a #PrayforMuamba hashtag took off on Twitter.

But Stacey, who claimed he was drunk at the time, didn’t fancy praying for Muamba, and so instead he tweeted:

"LOL. F**k Muamba. He’s dead."

(Muamba did not die, though he remains critically ill in a London hospital.)

When other tweeters complained to Stacey about his off-colour comments, he started to use racist language. He told his detractors to “f**k off”, and hurled pretty much every racial slur under the sun at them.

The Twitterati reported him to the police. And sure enough he got a visit from the cops, was charged with committing a racially aggravated public order offence, and now finds himself in the clink alongside burglars and rapists.

Yes, Stacey’s comments were horrible. But this was speech rather than actions, the use of words rather than the use of fists, and there should never be any state involvement, certainly not arrests and showtrials, in the arena of speech.

In finding himself incarcerated simply because he refused to “Pray for Muamba” and then expressed nasty racist thoughts, Stacey has effectively been punished for committing a thoughtcrime, or perhaps its modern equivalent: a tweetcrime.

The punishment of tweetcrime is on the rise in Britain.

In February, the Football Association fined Leicester City footballer Michael Ball £6,000 for tweeting the following about Antony Cotton, a gay actor on Coronation Street:

"That f**king queer. Get back to your sewing machine in Corrie, you moaning bastard."

Six-thousand quid for that. That’s £73 per character, surely adding up to one of the stiffest penalties ever imposed on a throwaway thought.

Last month, a Muslim teenager, Azhar Ahmed, was arrested for saying nasty things about British soldiers on his Facebook page. He faces a possible jail term for saying he wasn’t upset by the death of six soldiers in Afghanistan and hoped they would “go to HELL”.

After the riots that rocked English cities last August, two young men from Chester were imprisoned for four years - not for rioting, but for writing about rioting on their Facebook pages.

They invited their Facebook followers to start a riot in their hometown. No-one turned up, there was no violence, and yet still the young men found themselves behind bars, effectively for the crime of being fantasists. I guess The Clash should be grateful that they weren’t jailed back in the 1970s for singing “I wanna riot, a riot of my own”.

What is behind the mad state invasion of social-networking sites, the police hounding of daft tweeters and foolish Facebookers?

One of the most depressing things about this authoritarian assault on tweetcrime is that it isn’t simply a case of the state riding roughshod over people’s right to free expression - rather, the state is frequently invited to police the thoughts of tweeters and Facebookers by the very people who use those sites.

In all of the above cases, the tweetcriminals were grassed up to the authorities by hordes of shocked fellow tweeters, who sent the tweetcriminals’ offending remarks to the cops and asked them to “do something”.

Twitter is talked about as a free and easy, modern forum in which people can say what they like. But it can also be a highly intolerant place, where anyone who says something properly obnoxious is set upon and savaged by the Twittermob.

Like a modern-day version of those old medieval mobs that waved torches as they chased “witches”, the Twittermob will demonise and try to squish anyone it deems to be a deviant.

Gripped by an unquestioning hive-like mentality, and determined to make a massive public display of how offended they are by racism or homophobia and others forms of stupidity, these twitch-hunters will bang their keyboards like men possessed until the deviant has been expelled from the Twittersphere, or better yet arrested and imprisoned.

The great thing about a Twittermob is that you don’t even have to leave your home, far less light a torch and pull an angry, demonic face, in order to feel part of a witch-chasing collective.

No, these ostentatious offence-takers, these conspicuously right-on ragers against uncouthness, can get their moral rocks off from the comfort of their own living room. The 140-character tweet is the twenty-first century equivalent of the rotten tomato.

Perhaps the most striking thing about the Twittermob is that it is not stirred up and led by religious types or reactionaries, as many of the old mobs were, but rather by so-called liberals.

The Twittermob is infused by PC rather than religious fervour, by an ostensibly leftish loathing of offensive language rather than by Catholic antagonism towards sinful behaviour. It is that most oxymoronic of things: a liberal lynch mob.

So here in Britain, the Twittermob phenomenon really took off in October 2009, when the right-wing Daily Mail columnist Jan Moir wrote a column criticising gay lifestyles.

Moir really was treated as a modern-day witch - widely referred to as “evil” and “wicked” - by a Twittermob that was goaded into action by liberal observers. So Charlie Brooker, a columnist for the Guardian, implored his fans and followers to complain about Moir to the Press Complaints Commission. And, being good little Twitterbots, thousands of them did.

After Moir, a strange pro-anorexia tweeter called Kenneth Tong found himself the victim of a Twittermob, which was once provoked into action by liberal commentators. Johann Hari, then a writer for the Independent and prolific tweeter, said Tong’s toxic words could potentially “kill young girls”. Hari helped to energise a mob-like assault on the “evil” Tong as people campaigned for him to be “thrown off Twitter”.

And in the more recent Twittermobs, against racist or homophobic tweeters, it is remarkable how much the online lynch mob fancies itself as “liberal” as it demands the punishment of un-PC deviants.

This means the Twittermob is a very peculiar beast: it is intolerance in the service of “tolerance”, illiberalism designed to preserve “liberal values”. In screeching at racist or homophobic witches, and then watching with glee as these tweetcriminals get dragged before the courts, the Twitterati aim to demonstrate their moral superiority but in truth they only expose their moral depravity, and their illiberal refusal to permit the public expression of any thoughts they consider “evil”.

Some commentators are now suggesting that perhaps the imprisonment of Liam Stacey is a bit over-the-top. Sorry, but it’s too late for that. The jailing of a man for 56 days for the “crime” of tweeting is the logical end result of a feverishly censorious culture that you people helped to create.

Read more of my articles for ABC News and other publications here.

  1. brendanoneill posted this