Twitter: A playground for hysterics, prudes, fools and spies

4 April 2013

Another day, another story of the forces of order hounding an innocent citizen for making innocuous remarks on Twitter. This week’s target was Rob Marchant, a centrist Labour supporter, who was chatting online with a few comrades. They all opposed Lutfur Rahman, the sly and to my mind thoroughly unappetising mayor of Tower Hamlets.

Labour had expelled Rahman, a frontman for Islamic Forum Europe, after he ran against the official Labour candidate to become mayor. Unlike many of the conformists and appeasers on the London left, Marchant and his friends believed that it is the job of leftists to oppose the religious right. Not everyone agrees with that admirable sentiment. The supporters of Ken Livingstone are constantly agitating for Labour to readmit Rahman: in part because they like anyone, even religious reactionaries, who are against “the West”; in part because they have the Tammany Hall politician’s respect for the ethnic bloc vote Islamic Foreign Europe can mobilise.

Musing on this theme, Marchant joked to his friends that if Labour were to readmit Rahman they would just have to kill themselves. ‘I will load the revolver and we can all take turns,’ were his precise words.

You can probably guess what happened next. Hugh Muir the Guardian’s diarist, called Marchant. Rahman’s people were accusing him of threatening to kill him, and the Met were investigating the ‘death threat’. At least Muir had the decency to mention that Marchant was joking about suicide rather than assassination. No such delicacy restrained the London Evening Standard and the Left Futures blog, both of which left their readers with the distinct impression that Labour members were threatening to gun down Rahman.

An understandably dazed Marchant wrote

Let’s follow the logic here. Were I a would-be assassin, it seems firstly particularly odd in that I would choose to make such a threat in a publicly accessible way as Twitter. Secondly, the fact that it was only addressed to my own Twitter followers, meant that anyone wanting to make something of this would have had to actively seek out this tweet. In order to be an even vaguely credible threat, it would, surely, need to have been addressed to Rahman himself. It was not.

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It looks like the fuss has blown over, and that London’s ever watchful police service has found more pressing matters to investigate.

The wider point remains that the Web in general and Twitter in particular provides indelible evidence that the malicious, the prissy and the vengeful can use against you, on a scale we have not seen before.

Older people lament the decline of reticence. They condemn the young for making public exhibitions of themselves on the Web, and add the popularity of reality TV and confessional memoirs to their lamentations on the decline of modern manners.

But it is too simplistic to think new technologies get their users into trouble by making the private public. Rather, they make what was public but virtually unknowable available to everyone willing to search for incriminating evidence. Say 20 years ago, you had got blind drunk. Your friends take pictures of you in a deplorable state. The police arrest and prosecute you. The magistrate fines you for being drunk and disorderly, and a reporter records the verdict with a paragraph or two in the local paper. Society would have punished you in a public hearing. In theory, you have a stain that might stay with you for the rest of your life. In practice, strangers need never know. The friends’ pictures would go in an attic rather than on the Web; the newspaper cutting and police record would be buried in filing cabinets.

Before the Net, the courts convicted a friend of mine for possessing marijuana. Because he was the child of famous parents, the story made the national press. He grew up to become a jobbing news reporter moving from office to office. In every one, he sneaked into the library and ripped up the reports of his conviction. By the time he had finished, it might as well never have happened. The public event was effectively private.

A few years later, a friend on the Independent was also convicted of possessing drugs. The most malicious man on the paper was, as so often, the religious affairs editor. (Holiness corrupts, in my experience, and absolute holiness corrupts absolutely.) He wrote a column in the Church Times berating the sinfulness of Independent journalists – we drank too much, slept with people we should not have done and so on – and put it online. He did not name anyone apart from the woman with the drugs’ conviction, whom he seemed to hate with a passion. She has an unusual name. And for the next 15 years, every time she applied for a job, prospective employers have googled it and found out about her record. She’s lost several promotions as a result.

What was once an obscure misdemeanor her enemies could never find was traceable via a search engine in seconds. Twitter is particularly dangerous because of the power of the written word. Newspaper and book publishers have always known that they are more likely to be sued for libel than broadcasters because print is a permanent record. It feels more solid and damning than broadcasts which disappear into the ether. The trouble is that people write on Twitter and Facebook as if they are talking to friends. They behave as if they do not have to mind their manners and bite their tongues. I like that. I don’t want the freedom to communicate to be curtailed. But there is no doubt that the illusion that no one can listen in, leaves incautious users wide open to attack.

The Marchant case makes my point. If he and his friends had had a jokey conversation in the pub about Rahman, Britain would need to have been a Stasi state with informers everywhere for the police to learn of it. Because they joked on Twitter all Rahman needed to do was search for mentions of his name and flam up a case.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has offered some sensible guidelines on Twitter prosecutions. If the Web is not to remain such a boon for narks and sneak, we need a wider cultural change, however. We could do with understanding that we have moved from a world where it was difficult to find discreditable information about someone. Once, if you learned that the police had investigated a man who was applying for a job, the nugget of information assumed a vast significance. Because information was so hard to find, you could assume that the one discreditable fact you had in your possession was the tip of an iceberg, to use the cliché. Now so much information is recorded, we ought to be surprised if we can’t find something discreditable on the Web, or information that can be twisted to make someone look discreditable.

When we realise how far technology has changed we will understand that we ought to be as worried about the Lutfur Rahmans and all the other bullies and grasses who manipulate gullible journalists and police officers as the supposed villains they “unmask”.

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Show comments
  • TwitterFailBookStink

    More reasons to stop using these crappy social gadgets that are ruining the internet and killing privacy. No more can one joke on the internet back when the net was ruled by nerds. Now everyone and their mom is involved. Sigh.

  • Erin

    Another villain in the same mould is Benetta Adamson. Although now a mere B&B landlady in Lewes she was, from 2010 to 2012, a member of the national executive committe of the broadcasting union BECTU. She was also (and still is) the owner of the internet forum

    On this forum she was often intolerant of opinions that differed from her own and in some cases she would commence smear campaigns against those that slighted her by daring to disagree with her often poorly thought out opinions.

    She even went so far as to deliberately waste police time by trying to claim the victims of her smear campaigns were actually harassing her. Despite the police declining to intervene on her behalf she still claimed that her ‘enemies’ had been given harassment warnings.

    Some people really should stay away from the internet, especially if they are of far too delicate a sensibility to tolerate debate.

  • NiceTeaParty

    Twitter may be a medium for fools

    But it is also a Red Flag a fluttering

    Warning us all how small today’s Political and Ruling Class actually is

    Yet how powerful they are

    The Peoples’ Flag today may not be the colour of red but the hammer and sickle have evolved into a little blue bird

  • Kev Cooper

    Colonel Mustard, apologies for repeating your point on uniforms.

  • Kev Cooper

    looks a fairly typical picture to me. Four coppers, all dressed differently (the meaning of Uniform….?) two grossly overweight, especially the guy knocking at the door. They go in mob handed against a twitterer, like they go in mob handed against Stuart Hall (after the newspapers that mysteriously tipped off), but they can’t catch Suzanne Dando’s killer, they just fit up a loony and walk away. London has certainly got the police force it deserves. I was born in Streatham, but I left and now live in Tasmania. London, when I visited it last, was a multi-cultural crap-hole with a clown of a mayor. The best of British luck to all Londoners (if that is not too racist)

    • Donafugata

      Jill Dando

      • Kev Cooper

        right, sorry, my bad

  • Tim

    Another great example of this is Benetta Adamson, formerly a member of the national executive committee of BECTU. Over the course of several years she has smeared people that disagreed with her, used her internet forum to publish xenophobic abuse aimed at them and even incited threats of violence against them. Her reaction to being asked to take this down from her wretched site? Squealing to the police (who luckily knew better) that she was being harassed.

  • gregusmeus

    I agree. It’s becoming harder and harder to say stupid things publicly without some kill-joy adding their own stupidity to the mix and throwing it all back in your face.

  • ddrreett

    Nick – are you saying you approved of your mate’s destruction of newspaper records?

    I also note you misrepresent your other friend’s experiences jobhunting – it is her duty to tell ‘prospective employers’ about her conviction and if she did not do so then she lied in applications.

    Thus she’s not lost out in the jobs game through the impact of this religious journo whatsoever – any ‘promotion’ would have been with an organisation who already knew about her misdemeanours.

    This is very misleading writing on your part.


    The trouble is that people write on Twitter and Facebook as if they are
    talking to friends. They behave as if they do not have to mind their
    manners and bite their tongues. I like that.

    Does the same apply to editing wikipedia?

  • andy_gill

    Lutfur Rahman’s people ought to be prosecuted for wasting police time.

  • Atreyu

    Twitter — a place for proponents of sensationalist masturbatory nonsense to bore us incessantly, mercilessly and senselessly. Yawwwwwn.

    • Eddie

      Yep – but mostly used by women, who love a gossip. Your post suggests you think it’s a silly man ting. It ain’t!

      • Atreyu

        Oh? I’m not sure what in my post suggests that I think Twitter is a man’s thing. Clearly both sexes are capable of silliness, as your response illustrates.

  • Mark Cooper

    Note to subs: you missed out ‘arseholes’ in the headine.

  • Eddie

    Oh so much easier for the plods to run around arresting people who say rude words on Twitter and emails, rather than doing silly things like trying to catch criminals (muggers, rioters, burglars, take yer pick).
    The police need to stop going for the easy meat completely. What an utter waste to time and public money! And what an easy peasy ride for the rozzers! Drive at a leisurely pace to arrest some student for saying rude words on triple overtime; meanwhile, people are being mugged and beaten up leaft, right and centre.
    Pathetic. Utterly. And all a scam so the plods meet their arrest targets.
    Time to take this nonsense out of the police’s hands completely.

    • Mark Cooper

      Spot on.

      • Eddie

        Yep – and based on personal experience. A while ago, I fell out with a business contact who tried to rip me off. I called her rude words in an email when ending our business relationship. Two days later, two plump lady-plods knocked on me door, wanting to talk.
        They invited themselves in, told me the aforementioned woman (who tried to rip me off!) had made a complaint, and had printed off the emails which they had seen.
        I was told not to contact this woman again (I have though – 2 emails telling her what a pathetic weak whingeing woman she is and advising she grows a backbone and stops wasting taxpayers money and police time. I have also told her to call the police again – then we shall go to court and I shall ruin her and her business with all the bad publicity. She has not replied…).
        So, two podgy female plods telling me off – (not telling the woman off for trying to rip me off, of course – but hey, in the pc eyes of the police, all women are innocent wickle things oppressed by nasty wasty men…) – how much did that cost the taxpayer? How many crimes were committed while tweedleplods were in my house treating me like an eight year old who had said a rude word in assembly or pulled a girl’s pigtails?
        Utterly pathetic! Time for the police to stop behaving like the personal bodyguard of the new puritans, and any weak and pathetic person who goes blubbing to them like a toddler.
        Start, like, arresting criminals and ting? Perhaps if the plods attended fewer diversity training classes, they’d have more time for that too eh?

  • Colonel Mustard

    The photo is revealing. Four policemen. Four completely different standards of dress, including three without caps or helmets and displaying their shaven heads. And these officers are described as being “uniformed”? They are a disgrace to that concept and there are third world countries with smarter and (counter-intuitively) less aggressive looking police.

    • Disgruntled white worker

      Two of em are from the third world by the look of it. The unshaven fellow is probably a fellow Islamocrazy of Rahman.

  • MikeF

    What did Mr Marchant think of Mr Rathmans before he ran against the official Labour Party candidate? Did he oppose his politics then? If so did he wonder how and why people like Mr Rathmans were in the Labour Party in the first place? Obviously what has happened to Mr Marchant is reprehensible – but does he recognise that the party he supports through its espousal of identity politics, so-called ‘anti-racism’ and the concept of ‘hate crimes’ helped create the circumstances in which these events could occur in the first place? If so what is he doing about it now? If not why should anyone else care that he is now suffering the consequences of his own previous inaction and complacency?

  • C Cole

    Self-censorship is inevitable in a society that doesn’t afford free speech rights constitutional protection. I wish it were otherwise, but at least the internet is pointing to the shape of the reforms we need. And I say that as someone who is usually conservative with a small C.

    • Swank

      Very true and succinctly stated, C. C. That is Britain’s MAIN problem (and I know: Britain has hundreds of severe problems — but it always has).

      The first thing I would do, if I were Prime Minister — first day on the job — is provide the British with a sovereign Bill of Rights: meaning, one with the legal standing of the American Bill of Rights (a. k. a. the first ten amendments to the Constitution). Whatever you’ve got now ain’t working for you.

      • pedestrianblogger

        How sovereign is the Bill of Rights? Can the Potus (pbuh) scrub the Second Amendment with a wave of his wand in order to buy votes from the bed-wetters?

        • Swank

          Not legally, darling. Or morally.

  • Newsfox

    Agree with the surveillance state stuff. In terms of Rahman – yes there are questions over this man’s conduct possibly but also seems to be a clear racial agenda here. it’s all ‘tribal’ stereotypes, vote rigging claims and an undertone that the ‘home values’ are being threatened. Serious accusations. But Labour’s white politicians have also indulged in tribalism – remember what happened to heretics during the miners strikes? The New Atheists starting to sound as intolerant as dogmatic religious extremists (and I’m atheist in case you care).

  • Frank Bath

    Like a village post office (remember them?) Twitter is a huge unmediated gossip shop. At its best it’s a resource for journalists and other active enquirers, otherwise….

  • Mark Bailey

    “The most malicious man on the paper was, as so often, the religious
    affairs editor. (Holiness corrupts, in my experience, and absolute
    holiness corrupts absolutely.).”

    Oh Nick. Give it a break.

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