Paul Chambers went to trial for a joke he posted on Twitter, while Guy Adams was suspended from the network this week after criticising a TV station. So what have they learned?
Last week Paul Chambers had his conviction for sending a menacing tweet overturned. A few days later, journalist Guy Adams was banned by the site after posting criticism of a TV network. So how does it feel to get into trouble on Twitter? Interview by Oliver Laughland.
Paul Chambers: I won’t repeat the words because they’ll haunt me for ever, but I sent a tweet in January 2010 about an airport in Doncaster and how I was going to make it go sky high. When I sent it I was laid up in bed with a cold, and due to fly from there in a week and two days’ time. I went to work the following Monday and was arrested by four anti-terror officers in my office lobby holding a hard copy of my tweet. I very briefly thought it was a windup, and then I was hauled off to the Doncaster cells, held for eight hours, processed and interviewed by CID, and bailed. When I got home, they’d confiscated my laptop, desktop hard drive and phone, so I had no means of communicating. Then I was charged. Two years down the line, here we are with my conviction finally quashed.
Guy Adams: Well, my story is similar in some respects. I was sat at my desk last Friday afternoon getting frustrated at coverage of the Olympics on US TV. NBC decided to make everyone watch in prime time, which meant delaying the broadcast – it annoyed me, and so I vented my frustrations on Twitter. Like you, I didn’t really think anything of it. I tweeted Gary Zenkel’s email address – he’s head of NBC Olympics – saying something like: “Why don’t you let him know what you think?” It should have sunk without a trace, but on Sunday I checked Twitter and it said my account was suspended. It wasn’t until Monday that I got an email telling me why. That’s when it became news.
Oliver Laughland: What effect did this have on you?
PC: I was suspended from work, and because the case went on longer and longer, the position became untenable. At the time I was thinking about legal costs, I didn’t know what was going to come of this, and I was sure I’d get employed again soon. Then I was found guilty. I was jobless and a criminal. It was a complete shock. I was a naive guy. I thought injustices happen elsewhere, they don’t happen in this country. I’d had my whole life turned upside down – completely taken away from me. It’s a cliche, but that’s exactly how it felt. I had debts spiralling out of control, I had no way of getting an income.
GA: I didn’t lose my liberty. All I suffered was not being able to access a social networking site. I had a very different experience to you with my employer. On a personal note, though, the loss of control was terrifying. My wife is nine months pregnant. I work from home and all of sudden the phone was ringing constantly – she was having to take calls from my mobile while the landline was ringing. Was the support you had from other Twitter users important?
PC: Totally. If there’s one thing Twitter users are good for, it is fighting a cause.
OL: Has your experience changed the way you use Twitter now?
GA: Before it happened I had about 4,500 followers on Twitter – it felt like a club of my mates. I had relationships with certain people who I’d be happy having nonsense conversations with – “here’s a particularly fine courgette I’ve just grown in my garden,” and tweet a picture of it or something. Now I’ve got 20,000 Twitter followers, so I don’t want to tweet anything stupid. At the moment, I’m censoring myself.
PC: Well, I now have about 10,000 followers, but by now half of them have probably realised how tedious I am. People know what to expect when they’re following me. Twitter, for me, is very conversational and organic – this has taken that away to some extent, but if anyone could say the perfect thing at the perfect time, they’d be the new Gore Vidal.
GA: I think we need clearer rules about what you can and can’t say. Social networks like Twitter should have guidelines, and those rules should be clear and properly enforced. At the moment, they’re not properly enforced. In my case, they ignored them.
PC: Guidelines is the key word – not laws. To outright ban someone without any due process, to have people arrested because someone somewhere has no idea of context, these things really tick me off. If you give an inch on trying to regulate something like Twitter, before long, it won’t be what it was when it started.
GA: The Tom Daley case has been interesting this week. Clearly, he [the teenager arrested for sending abusive messages to Olympic diver Daley] said something pretty nasty, Twitter did nothing because it didn’t breach any of their rules, but like you, he’s ended up being arrested. How do you feel about what happened to him?
PC: Here’s the thing: it all depends on what he was arrested for. If he was arrested for the tweets sent to Tom Daley, then it’s very wrong. As I’ve said all along, context is key. We’re supposed to have a common-sense law. It is possible to block people on Twitter.
GA: People are able are to set up Twitter accounts under assumed identities. On Twitter you can comment anonymously – is it right that you can do this without any repercussions? Somewhere along the line a consensus has to be reached – particularly on newspaper comment sites, we need to move beyond a situation where people can post abusive nonsense under assumed names.
OL: Are you still angry?
GA: I don’t wake up every morning with a bee in my bonnet, but I still want Twitter to apologise for suspending me. They’ve apologised for dobbing me in to NBC but they haven’t apologised for finding that my tweet was against their rules in the first place. I think that’s very cowardly of them.
PC: I try not to harbour any resentment as I don’t think it’s very productive. I was a head of department in finance, and now I’m working in a warehouse 6am–2pm for minimum wage. I lost two and half years of my life because me and my fiancee have not been able to have a normal relationship, we’ve had this on our backs all of the time. This is the first time we’ve been together where I’ve not been a criminal.