After Stan Collymore affair should social networks do more to police themselves?

Former professional footballer Stan Collymore, who has been the victim of racial abuse on social networks on numerous occasions, has accused Twitter of not doing enough to combat abusive messages after he was again targeted by internet ‘trolls’.

Police have confirmed they are investigating a series of offensive messages directed at the ex-England striker, which were sent after he suggested Liverpool striker Luis Suarez cheated by diving during a recent match against Aston Villa.

Collymore retweeted some of the abuse he has received since the match to his half a million followers, as he called on Twitter to take action.

The 42-year-old, who was racially abused by two students a couple of years ago, wrote: “In the last 24 hours I’ve been threatened with murder several times, demeaned on my race, and many of these accounts are still active. Why?

“I accuse Twitter directly of not doing enough to combat racist/homophobic/sexist hate messages, all of which are illegal in the UK.”

Speaking on Radio 4’s Today programme he blasted Twitter, claiming that the site appeared to be more interested in making money than protecting its users

He said: “I just wonder whether a couple of months after a stock market flotation on the New York Stock Exchange that monetises the amount of users, that this is Twitter looking at the number of pounds or dollars rather than its social responsibility.”

He added: “There have been people that I know who have reported individual accounts and have reported to the Met police and various police stations around the country, and racist abuse has stayed on people’s timelines for months. We’re not talking days, we’re talking months.”

Mr Collymore is not the only high profile figure to have allegedly received abuse over Twitter. Feminist campaigner, Caroline Criado-Perez, received abuse after her campaign for a woman to appear on a bank note resulted in Jane Austen being selected for the £10 note.

Prosecuting Allison Morgan stated that Ms Criado-Perez had received abusive messages from 86 Twitter accounts, including death threats from both Isabella Sorley and John Nimmo, the two people convicted of posting abusive messages this month.

“Caroline Criado-Perez has suffered life-changing psychological effects from the abuse which she received on Twitter,” she told the court.

“In particular, the menacing nature of the tweets sent by both defendants caused her significant fear that they would find her and carry out their threats.”

Those convicted for sending electronic messages that are ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene, or menacing character’ violate Section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, a crime which is on the rise. In the past two years, nearly 2,500 people have been convicted of such abuse. This figure has risen from just 143 convictions in 2004, and shows no sign of decreasing.

Given that this is an offense punishable by up to six months in prison, we have to ask whether social networks themselves are doing enough to prevent this type of behaviour.

Twitter has introduced a ‘report’ feature within web browsers and on its apps, allowing users to flag abusive or offensive tweets to moderators. But is this enough to discourage such torrid behaviour?

While this feature helps to condemn those purposely abusing others for their own amusement, it doesn’t help to educate most people regarding the significance of their 140-character statements.

As high-profile investigations trigger the debate, it is unsurprising that an array of civil cases come into the public fold. Microblogging site Tumblr has received criticism, following the tragic case of Tallulah Wilson. The gifted 15-year-old ballerina threw herself under a train in October 2012. Her mother condemned the “toxic digital world” for contributing to her death, by allowing young people to share explicit images of self-harming. The jury concluded that Tallulah took her own life and that Tumblr was both a comfort to her and the source of inappropriate images of self-inflicted injuries. The judge shared: “This case has highlighted the importance of online life for young people. We all have a responsibility to gain better understanding of this.”

Despite these very public cases, many people are still seemingly unaware of the dangers of posting content online. Tweets are not private and by no means disappear like words in conversation. In legal terms, every comment posted online is considered as published, and ‘retweets’ and ‘shares’ only increase the impact of a person’s words – and the potential repercussions.

Social media sites, such as Twitter and Facebook, should warn their users about posting comments online, as they could be in breach of laws beyond the Communications Act.

Here in Wales, nine people were forced to pay £624 to a woman raped by footballer Ched Evans after they admitted naming her on Twitter and Facebook.

They were all charged with publishing material likely to lead members of the public to identify the complainant in a rape case, contrary to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992.

All nine of those who pleaded guilty claimed they didn’t know that naming a rape victim was itself a crime, yet ignorance of the law is no defence.

While social media sites have legal status as an intermediary and can’t tell us what we can or can’t post online, I believe there is a line that can be crossed and certainly an increasing sense of responsibility for them to warn us of the potential significance of our posts. Too many people are unaware of the risks associated with making controversial statements online and it is certainly an issue that social media sites should seriously consider if they want to reduce the number of offensive statements posted on them. After all, prevention is always better than the cure.


About Hugh Hitchcock

Hugh Hitchcock is a director at DJM Solicitors, a commercial law firm providing legal services to clients across the UK and Los Angeles, Hong Kong and Japan. His career spans 23 years spent in media and corporate law, and he specialises in dispute resolution. He previously spent six years at a leading media firm that acted for Elton John and The Beatles' record label Apple.