Social media tolerance doesn’t mean anything goes

Rape threats on Twitter over the summer revealed an unsavory side to social media that has made many wonder if they really want to use it.

But it is hard for anyone – especially people running businesses looking to reach mass audiences – to ignore a medium that has millions of users.

Indeed, many of the victims of the recent threats are themselves saying they will not be driven from Twitter and that it’s the abusers who should be silenced.

Twitter has updated its rules to make clear abuse will not be tolerated and has added a new ‘in-tweet’ button so people can report abusive behaviour.

“We want people to feel safe on Twitter, and we want the Twitter rules to send a clear message to anyone who thought that such behaviour was, or could ever be, acceptable,” said Tony Wang, Twitter’s UK boss.

But what’s the legal position? Earlier this year, guidelines for social media published by the Director of Public Prosecutions urged ‘considerable caution’ in bringing charges in some types of cases because of ‘the potential for a chilling effect on free speech’.

Keir Starmer QC said: “I have drawn a clear distinction between those cases that constitute a credible threat of violence, stalking, harassment or a breach of a court order – clearly requiring robust prosecution in the public interest – and those cases characterised as unpopular, or even very offensive comments, which often will not.”

The latter, he explained, will require a high threshold of being ‘grossly’ offensive making prosecution ‘necessary and proportionate’.

It remains to be seen how police will interpret the new rules. My reading of them is that cases like the imprisonment of Liam Stacey for racist tweets about footballer Fabrice Muamba will sit right on the borderline.

Though Starmer said causing offence to individuals is not in itself sufficient reason to prosecute, he added that charges would be brought where content can be considered ‘beyond that which is tolerable in an open and diverse society’.

So the guidelines are not an anything-goes charter, but they do mean social media will be much less constrained than newspapers and broadcast media.

Whether this proves to be a good thing remains to be seen. But where does it leave businesses in dealing with the social media activities of people they employ or in responding to damaging online criticisms?

In August, the Canadian car maintenance chain, Mr Lube, sacked a young mechanic after his attempt to procure marijuana on Twitter was spotted by police.

Posting under the name Sunith Baheerathan, the employee’s tweet asked for a dealer to bring a ‘spliff’ to the Mr Lube outlet where he worked.

This is pretty clear cut from an employment point of view. Businesses cannot stifle free speech, but they can set standards for their employees, especially in relation to activities in working time and on their premises – including spliff deliveries.