Friday, November 12, 2010

Foolish Whispers

@Haroon_Siddique #IAmSpartacus campaign explodes on Twitter in support of airport joker (Guardian 12 November 2010)

The #IAmSpartacus hashtag is peaking on Twitter today, following the refusal by Judge Jacqueline Davies to overturn the conviction of Paul Chambers for a foolish tweet about Robin Hood Airport. Some people have repeated Mr Chambers' tweet in the true spirit of solidarity and shared risk that the "I am Spartacus" quote implies, while many others have edited or distorted the tweet, either to make it funnier (which is missing the point) or to ensure they are safe from prosecution (in other words, to make it as clear as possible they are not really Spartacus). Actually, even the use of the #IAmSpartacus hashtag may be enough to indicate that one isn't Spartacus. (For a piece that doesn't cross its fingers, see Charlie Brooker's piece in the Guardian, The words you read next will be your last.)

The offending tweet was in four parts.
  1. A mild expletive.
  2. A statement that the airport was closed.
  3. A demand.
  4. A threat of violent action if the demand isn't satisfied.
Chambers was prosecuted, not for the counterfactual bomb hoax but for "nuisance". Which part of this tweet is likely to have the greatest influence on passengers, perhaps persuading some of them to alter their travel plans? Clearly it is the second part of the tweet, not the fourth, that could cause the greatest nuisance. If you really wanted to annoy the airport authorities, you could start by circulating rumours that the airport was closed.

If the airport authorities choose to have a hissy fit about part 4, we can draw two unfavourable conclusions.
  • The airport pays more attention to customer dissatisfaction when threats of violence are made. Peaceful complaints don't make the headlines.
  • The security measures at the airport are so ineffective that a peeved 29-year-old accountant with no terrorist training can blow the place up.
Paul Chambers is now heading for the High Court (New Statesman, 23 November 2010).

In a separate incident, someone called Gareth Compton has been arrested for a despicable joke at the expense of journalist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown, suggesting he wanted her stoned to death [BBC News]. Perhaps Mr Compton had temporarily forgotten his respectable social standing as a barrister and Conservative councillor, and fancied himself as a panelist on Mock the Week. Don't give up the day job, Mr Compton! (Whoops, too late.)

According to a liberal notion of consistency and tolerance, we should defend Gareth Compton as robustly as we defend Paul Chambers, even if we think both of them are idiots. (Why we should all stand up for Gareth Compton, says Guy the Mac). It is hard to believe either of them are capable of serious damage, except to their own careers. Fortunately for them, "Chambers" and "Compton" are both traditional English surnames. I wish I could believe that public opinion is equally understanding of foolish remarks and empty threats made by people with funny foreign names; Ms Alibhai-Brown doesn't believe this, which is one of the reasons she feels so aggrieved.

The deeper question is how Twitter and other platforms lure people into this kind of idiocy. We may worry about our teenage children doing stupid things on Facebook because this will come back to haunt them when they have respectable careers as accountants and barristers. Maybe we worry too much about our children, and not enough about the adults who set them such a poor example.


And three cheers for my local bishop, the self-avowed republican Bishop of Willesden, who has offended the Royal Family by speculating on Facebook about the likely duration of the forthcoming union between the Windsors and Middletons [Independent 21 November 2010].

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