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