Bitter Twitter: when free speech goes wrong

In June last year a woman was brutally killed in Birstall, West Yorkshire. Jo Cox was a respected MP and mother of two children. Her murderer, Thomas Mair, was only interested in her political voice, communicated through her professional Twitter account, which he viewed two days prior to the killing (Cobain, 2016). Jo, like most MPs, freely expressed her political opinions online; Mair was reacting against her support for the Remain campaign during the EU referendum.

Fig 1: The politics of Twitter

This recent tragedy has brought issues of personal safety in connection to social media to the fore. In the wake of Jo Cox’s murder, the founder of hate-crime monitoring group Tell MAMA told MPs that Twitter is failing to tackle far-right extremists.

“There’s a real risk after the murder of Jo Cox to individuals in our country that organisations and corporations like Twitter simply disregard … and it cannot continue” (Mughal, 2016).

However, Twitter does have a hateful conduct policy and an abuse-reporting page (Grierson, 2016). A Guardian article (2014) applies the saying ‘don’t shoot the messenger’ in defence of Twitter, arguing that the platform is ‘only the messenger for the society in which it operates. It is not responsible for … the social misfits who use it. We are.’ Perhaps the issue lies in the fact that social networking platforms can expose the gross prejudices still at work in modern society; not a comfortable realisation.

Just a few months after the tragedy, a man was arrested for tweeting “someone jo cox Anna sourby please” (The Guardian, 2016). Under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 it is an offence to send messages that are ‘grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character’. Anna Soubry, the Conservative MP for Broxtowe in Nottinghamshire was, like Cox, a Remain supporter. She responded to the message on social media, calling the Twitter user a “sad cowardly troll”. Trolling is new internet slang term for a person who posts provocative and potentially hurtful messages in an online community.

new-piktochart_172_f25edc1360667224b859c31543eebce5864a32d3 (3)
Fig 2: Trolling infographic

Twitter is a wonderful medium for freedom of speech. Unfortunately there is also the potential for it to be a conduit for terrible things. We have to realise that social media infers a societal responsibility on us all.

Word count: 383


Castella, T & Brown, V (2011). Trolling: Who does it and why? BBC News.

Cobain, I (2016). Jo Cox killed in ‘brutal, cowardly’ and politically motivated murder, trial hears. The Guardian

Communications Act (2003).

Gammon, J (2014). Over a quarter of Americans have made malicious online comments. YouGov.

Greenwald, G (2014). Why privacy matters. TED Talk.

Grierson, J (2016). Twitter fails to deal with far-right abuse, anti-hate group tells MPs. The Guardian.

Ronson, J (2015). How one stupid tweet blew up Justine Sacco’s life. The New York Times Magazine.

The Guardian (2014). Twitter abuse: easy on the messenger.

The Guardian (2016). Man arrested over tweet urging someone to ‘Jo Cox’ MP Anna Soubry.

The Telegraph (2015). Five internet trolls a day convicted in UK shows ten-fold increase. Ministry of Justice Figures.

Figure references

Figure 1: Self-produced using Microsoft PowerPoint.

Figure 2: Self-produced using Piktochart using statistics from YouGov and the Ministry of Justice.


14 thoughts on “Bitter Twitter: when free speech goes wrong

  1. Hi Catherine,

    I really enjoyed reading your post. I found it especially thought-provoking that you touched on the case of Jo Cox, which just shows how social media can leave the online realm and have an irreversible impact on our lives and those around us.

    Cases of trolling have definitely become “the norm” unfortunately, significantly amongst those in the public eye. I came across this article listing some well-known public figures who have deactivated their social accounts after receiving a lot of abuse:

    Often the argument is that “celebrities” have chosen to be in the public eye and should just learn to deal with the abuse they receive. However, we have seen that trolling can have several profound effects on users who receive abuse online:

    Do you think public figures should have to deal with trolls differently to everyone else?

    I look forward to your reply.



    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Louise,

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post and thanks for commenting.

      It was interesting to read personal celebrity experiences of Twitter in the Telegraph article you linked; some very popular figures have been deeply offended or upset on the platform and, as you say, have been forced to deactivate their accounts to end the stream of abuse. I wonder if this is a product of celebrities seeming powerful and untouchable by nature, causing the general public to sometimes forget that they are only human and should therefore be treated accordingly. I believe it is everyone’s human right to be protected from extreme online abuse, not least because it can be extremely damaging for long term mental health.

      Let me know your thoughts.
      Thanks again.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Hi Catherine,
        I do agree entirely. Prior to social media being so accessible for celebrities and “regular people” alike, there was a barrier between those who had fame and those who do not. Social media has bridged that gap in a positive way, but unfortunately the abuse is a negative side effect of this. I think there should be more sanctions to deal with those cases as well as the cases of everyone else on these platforms so we are all protected from that kind of abuse.
        Thanks for your reply.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Hi Catherine, thanks for a brilliant blog post!

    I really liked the use of the Piktochart that conveyed the more boring statistics in a more colourful and interactive way. In addition, the use of external links and other articles was also very engaging in providing further details on the matter.

    I would agree with you on the the fact that Twitter is a wonderful medium for free speech. I personally feel there are very few other tools where your opinions can be shared so freely, but do you think there is much more Twitter can do when combating trolling? Is it not just a fundamental societal problem of people wanting to be malicious for their own motives? I think the question I’m asking is if Twitter’s hateful conduct policy can ever truly eradicate trolling?
    Also, would you say their is a strong correlation between trolling and the use of multiple identities?

    All the best and I hope to hear your views!


    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hi Jordan, thanks, I enjoyed reading your comments.

      In answer to your question, yes, Twitter is certainly limited in what it can do to help, and trolling is not a simple issue that can be neatly solved. However, this Guardian article discusses ways of minimising trolling, for example, putting a brief delay on when comments get posted creates opportunities for individuals to amend or retract aggressive comments written in the heat of the moment. In my post I mentioned a societal responsibility incurred with Twitter; the article also discusses social techniques which can be used to try and influence people towards acting more civilly.

      I don’t know the answer to your second question about multiple identities, although I do know that internet trolls are often just ordinary people having a bad day. Still, I would be interested to know what percentage of trolls are acting under a pseudonym or alternative identity.

      Hopefully the wider recognition and improved understanding of trolling is leading towards less damaging online debates in future!

      Let me know if you have any further thoughts.
      Thanks again.


  3. Hi Catherine, what a tangible yet harrowing account of the realities of social media in the contemporary world! It is such a shame that we are even having to discuss loss of life as a result of bigotry and intolerance of others’ opinions. I hadn’t even considered this as a topic for my blog post on ethics, so I thank you for bringing this issue to the fore. Had you considered the other, perhaps more ‘silent’, psychological effect of trolling: suicide (Luxton et al. (2012))? With a great deal of talk in the media recently on mental health, I was wondering what your thoughts are on this.
    Do you believe there is anything social media platforms/businesses can do differently to help those in need of support because of ‘trolling’?

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Hi Brad, thanks for commenting, it’s great to hear your thoughts.

    The effects of trolling can certainly be highly damaging to an individual’s health and well-being and fatal in extreme cases. I was pleased to see the recent coverage of the Heads Together campaign which aims to end the stigma around mental health, with help from The Duke and Duchess of Cambridge and Prince Harry. The high profile campaign should help to raise awareness of internet trolling as a source of the issues.

    In relation to what Twitter and the online community can do to help, see the first para of my reply to Jordan above for a couple of thoughts.

    Let me know what you think.
    Thanks again.


  5. Hi Catherine,

    I really enjoyed reading your blog post. I found it interesting, a bit sad and extremely thought-provoking. I think the case of Jo Cox really does exemplify how twitter can go wrong, and shows how tweets 140 characters or less can result in the most awful tragedies. It’s interesting that you mention she, like many MPs, freely expressed her political opinions online. I know a lot of people who also do this, especially during the referendum; do you think that everyday individuals are at a similar risk when they do this?

    I also like your link to trolling – something that is so common now! It’s interesting to see how 5 people are convicted every day for this. I came across this article about how trolling affects 1 in 3 young people, and it has some really interesting, if also quite upsetting, case studies:

    Do you think we have a social responsibility to protect one another from situations like this? Or should it be a government issue?

    I look forward to hearing your thoughts!


    Liked by 1 person

  6. Hi Rachel, I’m glad you found the post interesting and thanks for commenting.

    Although everyone on social media is vulnerable to abuse, I think that people in the public eye such as politicians and celebrities (see my discussion with Louise above) are more at risk than ‘ordinary’ people.

    I was interested to read what actions vInspired have taken to combat trolling in the article you linked. The charity are clearly well aware that a central issue is that anyone can be a troll. For this reason they encourage young people to pledge not to be a troll themselves. I also liked their inspired ‘Troll under the Bridge’ installation at Waterloo’s IMAX underpass, with projections of real life trolling messages on the walls and recording of public response to the negative messages.

    In answer to your last question, I think it is the responsibility of everyone, including government bodies, social media platforms and individuals, to create a safe and respectful society.

    Let me know your thoughts. Thanks again.



  7. Hi Catherine,

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts with me! It was interesting to see your discussion with Louise, I think that’s definitely the case with more radical actions. Do you think though that with Celebrities they have a slightly “thicker skin” to negative comments because of how they can be presented in the media?

    Thanks, Rachel


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