I woke up this morning to see numerous people I follow on twitter saddened by the verdict that the twitter joke trial would continue on as originally set. This may come as a surprise and a sad thing to many people, but it not a surprise in the least to me. But first, a little background for those who may be unaware of the situation.
Paul Chambers (I am unable to find his twitter name in the three seconds I spent searching for it) was planning on meeting up with a friend, but required a flight to get there. There were delays however due to the weather and his flight was cancelled. That night from a hotel while joking with his friend @crazycolours he sent her the tweet “Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You’ve got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”. The authorities noticed this tweet, tracked it down to Paul Chambers and pressed charges for making a terrorist threat.
Originally he was given a conviction and a rather minor (considering the charges) £1,000 fine, however he chose to appeal this. That appeal happened today. He lost and according to The Guardian has been told his fine has been increased a further £2,000 for the proceedings that have taken place.
From what I’ve gathered so far, his defence relied on convincing the courts that this was a private conversation between himself and @crazycolours. The statements of his were not made publicly or directly to the airport. Also, they were purely said in jest, they were a joke with no actual intention of even considering following through with them.
I see things differently though. No matter how much you may wish it weren’t, Twitter IS a public platform. Unless you have your tweets set to private, anyone and everyone can see them. Google does capture them. They are also searchable and many organisations do perform keyword searches.
Just a few days ago @stilgherrian was complaining about Telstra. He does not follow any Telstra accounts and they do not follow him, yet they still responded to his rants and started pursuing a course of resolution for the problems he was having.
To say that a conversation is private when you don’t have your tweets protected is nothing more than wishful thinking. An analogy would be more like being in a busy public square and talking to a friend 100 meters away using a megaphone. What you’re saying may be to them, but anyone and everyone can actually hear the conversation if they so choose, and they don’t need to be your followers. It is a very public forum indeed.
There’s also the question of context. Twitter is limited to 140 characters per tweet. Chances are that the authorities who noticed his tweet were monitoring keywords. This is something very simple to do. It’s built in not only to twitter’s site, but also many of the twitter clients. I do it myself (see screenshot) as do many MANY people. This only shows up the specific tweets that hit those keywords, not those tweets surrounding it making their context irrelevant.
With such a small number of characters available for a tweet, it is quite hard to ascertain context. The context may have been built in previous tweets that did not contain the same keywords. Being a text based medium you cannot tell the tone of a persons voice either. This tweet should be treated standalone, and not in combined context with them.
In summary, Paul Chambers’ tweet (the specific one in question) should be taken as standalone as that is how it appears in keyword searchings and online indexing. The rest of his tweets are not relevant. The tweet in question was public to the extent of being globally traceable and there was no indication in the tweet itself to signify it being a joke. People are constantly calling for Twitter to be treated like a legitimate business tool, which requires organisations to be doing the exact keyword searching mentioned above and acting on any found tweets (as demonstrated by the Telstra/Stilgehhrian anecdote). This is what the authorities did. Paul Chambers’ tweet was akin to yelling “FIRE!” in a crowded theatre with a cop standing right next to you, and it should be treated as such.
Be careful what you tweet.
Edit: In addition to what I said above…
“Judge Davies refused a request by Ferguson to cut the sentence to an absolute or conditional discharge. She effectively branded Chambers a liar by calling his denials about realising the possible implications of the tweet incredible.
She told the court that he had been an “unimpressive witness” and said: “Anyone in this country in the present climate of terrorist threats, especially at airports, could not be unaware of the possible consequences.””
… I disagree with this part of the ruling. When it comes to online interaction, computers, and anything associated with either of these the majority of the public (anecdotally anyway) are exceedingly ignorant. I think it is very fathomable indeed for him to be ignorant of the implications of his tweet.
The purpose of my writing this blog post is in fact an attempt to try to educate people in the implications. If I didn’t feel the need I would not have spent the time to type all of this out. Ignorance however is rarely if ever a defence.