“Action speaks louder than words, but not nearly as often,” wrote the 19th Century author Mark Twain. Although he courted more than his fair share of controversies, Twain lived at a time when public and published words were possessed by a minority. Mere talk – those mundane conversations and concerns his wit so carefully skewered – existed far from worldly words and actions.
Eleven decades after the author’s death, such boundaries are less certain.
Consider just a handful of the cases and controversies currently involving Twitter. Thanks to an allegedly racist tweet, Manchester United’s Rio Ferdinand has been charged by the Football Association with improper conduct. Legal action is being brought against Twitter in the US in order to make it reveal the identity of the person behind a spoof account satirising the chief executive of a newspaper group. British journalist Guy Adams was suspended from using the site following American broadcaster NBC’s complaints over his tweeting, although he was reinstated after a public outcry. Ugly, abusive threats to the Olympic diver Tom Daley led to the arrest of a teenager. Twitter’s own chief executive recently called some of the abuse and heckling that takes place on his site “horrifying”. And the US government – among others – has made many hundreds of user information requests to the service for its own reasons.
It feels, as the author and media expert Dan Gillmour recently put it, like “a defining moment for Twitter”. But it’s also a moment in which larger issues of both law and belief are being defined. What freedoms and protections do we owe to each other in this young arena, where even the most casual comments are fleshed with enough permanence to act upon the world? And are our old structures for judging and enforcing these protections remotely up to the job?
Some of the most suggestive recent answers to these questions seem, to me, to be bound up with a tale that Twain himself might have considered exemplary satire: that of the British man convicted of telling a dubiously tasteful joke.
Like all the best stories, it begins with a boy and a girl. In January 2010, 28-year-old Paul Chambers was poised to visit his girlfriend in Northern Ireland when he discovered that the UK’s Robin Hood airport was closed due to snow. In frustration, he posted a message under his own name on Twitter. “Crap!” it exclaimed, “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!"
These words had no particular repercussions until, five days later, the airport’s duty manager found them while searching the site from home. The manager duly alerted his manager, whence the matter made its way to the airport police, then the local police, who two days later arrested Paul Chambers at work, interviewed him, and passed their findings on to the Crown Prosecution Service - who then charged him with the offence of sending a “message of menacing character”. Fast forward two years from the typing of those 25 offending words, and Chambers received a criminal conviction and fine under the 2003 Communications Act – an Act three years older than Twitter itself.
If this sounds more like Kafka than Twain, there is at least a happy ending. This July, the High Court published its judgement granting Chambers’s appeal against his conviction on the grounds that, effectively, it was incorrect to interpret his original comment as anything other than a joke. After all he had been through, the offending tweet was judged only to be words after all.