Reblogged from The Guardian.
For many, the internet embodies an idealised vision of democracy – a liberal, open-minded environment that promotes free speech and provides a platform for alternative views. Once, only the powerful and wealthy had a voice which largely operated as a monologue; the elite spoke, and the masses listened. In turn, the masses drowned out the voices of the powerless and poor. This hierarchy, established over centuries, has been short-circuited in mere decades by the internet, in the form of article comments, government e-petitions, and social media sites such as Twitter. Now, the words or deeds of the powerful can trigger a loud and sustained response that is hard to ignore. It’s easy to see the benefits of this. Marginalised and wronged groups have been able to use online campaigns to usher us all forward into a more enlightened era in which we are more open-minded about the LGBQT community, disability, race, religion and so forth.
In the perfect sweep of democratic even-handedness that characterises the internet, however, a voice is given to all, including those who use it to be abusive and intimidating. A case in point is the banknote campaign by the feminist and journalist Caroline Criado-Perez. After successfully petitioning the Bank of England to include a woman on a banknote in July 2012, Criado-Perez was subjected to a torrent of rape, mutilation and death threats sent from more than 80 different Twitter accounts. The response from Twitter was painfully slow, and Criado-Perez has described her frustration with the police investigation. While other trials are ongoing, only two individuals have so far appeared in court in relation to the abusive tweets. This week, John Nimmo from South Shields and Isabella Sorley from Newcastle pleaded guilty to sending messages of a menacing nature.
Nimmo had created multiple accounts to send numerous threats to both Criado-Perez and MP Stella Creasy in a campaign that lasted several days. His solicitor presented him as a sad individual; a social recluse who had jumped on the “rape threat train” as a way of seeking attention, validation and popularity. Descriptions of how he had been severely bullied at school were used to explain how he had become a pitiable, alienated individual who barely left the house except to empty his bins, and whose only life was lived through the internet.
Meanwhile, Sorley claimed to be unable to remember sending the abuse, and described herself as “off [her] face on drink” at the time. Her defence likewise sought to show that the occurrence of the threats, on only one day, in the early hours of the morning, was indicative of a moment of poor judgment brought about by ongoing drink problems. A possibly contradictory element to this, however, was that like Nimmo, Sorley had created multiple different accounts to send the abuse – a step more consistent with someone covering their tracks. Indeed, whilst Nimmo was bailed until sentencing on 24 January, Sorley has been remanded in custody due to a range of prior public order offences, and in her case, a custodial sentence is inevitable.
While Nimmo’s accounts have long since been shut down, Sorley’s remain active. At 9.16am on the morning of her trial, Sorley tweeted a selfie from Buckingham Palace, with the words, “Just chilling at the queens #London”. Meanwhile, on 15 December, she tweeted, “Pretty sure i was in the quiet coach on the way home yesterday. There was nothing quiet about my behaviour #sorrymam”. Tweets like these, and others besides, suggest an emotionally immature young woman who simply doesn’t understand – or perhaps doesn’t want to understand – how her behaviour affects those around her. It reasonably follows that someone with a limited grasp of empathy offline has little chance of being empathetic online.
Overall, that idealised democracy that the internet offers is priceless beyond measure. For every negative Nimmo or Sorley story, there is a positive one – such as a campaign that has brought about real, meaningful change. In other words, while this case might seem to implicitly support the censorship of marginalised voices, what it in fact demonstrates is a need for a better understanding that freedom of expression does not mean freedom from consequences. The web really does give a voice to those previously silenced, but with that voice comes responsibility, and a moment on the fingertips could turn into a lifetime on the criminal record slip.