Once More With Feeling: Watch What You Tweet

What’s that? The stuff you say online has no consequences in real life? I bet those officers at your door felt real. torontopolice.on.ca/newsreleases/r…

— Steve Murray (@NPsteve) November 21, 2012

It’s so easy to type words into a little box and hit send. Sometimes the words are backchannel chatter, during a broadcast of something everyone’s watching sort-of together. Other words are ill-considered remarks or comments perhaps more easily posted on a screen than spoken to a face. Sometimes words are directed at someone—or someone’s avatar—but not really to the person. These words can seem virtual, but they’re real and can have real consequences. And, of course, we know this.

This and related topics have been addressed here before: See the question recently posed about the relevance, if any, of the reach of a communication, for example. That “the stuff you say online” can have concrete ramifications is not new and not specific to social media or online communities. Many an ill-considered email has been sent without that useful sober second thought. And many of us have been either its sender, recipient, or both.

But a few reports in Canada and the US just this week—besides the big stories on point—are good reminders that to say online what’s best left unexpressed can have serious consequences. Two of these reports involve online activity that resulted in legal or police action.

In one case, online words and ongoing conduct that were found to be “not just inappropriate” led to a conviction for criminal libel. On Friday, the court sentenced that accused to a 90-day jail sentence. The court found the conduct “akin to cyber-bullying.” The accused is reportedly considering an appeal from the conviction.

In a separate matter, other allegations in respect of particular Twitter activity are the subject of a police investigation. This week, criminal harassment charges were laid. The investigation appears to be ongoing and no allegations have been brought to or proved in court.

A guiding policy sometimes offered in respect of online exchanges is to say online only what one would be prepared to say in person. If words could be hurtful in person, assume they will be hurtful online too. If words or activity might expose one to legal action if spoken or conducted in real life, the parallel assumption should follow.

That approach, in general, is sensible. But what about online chatter that might be acceptable, if distasteful, in person—say, between friends or at a party? Certain things one might say in a face-to-face context can have grievous effect online, for two reasons.

First, the reach of some online communication is often unforeseen or unpredictable. In an incident cautionary to live-tweeters, a research lawyer in the US was fired this week for posting tweets that were “not appropriate,” given the particular context. She admitted having given insufficient attention to the public nature of the medium.

And second, the ephemeral very easily can become persistent. This weekend, another round of individuals were added to a public shaming site after having posted offensive tweets replete with slurs during a recent event broadcast. These tweeters were either unaware of or indifferent to public shaming of individuals who had posted offensive remarks in the late days of the US election campaigns. I won’t post links to these.

… ugh. Shameful how so many ppl can’t perceive impact, reach, permanence of their racist tweets. Use Internet as a bathroom wall.

— David Leach (@LeachWriter) November 20, 2012

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