Twitter: Blurring the lines

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Marcos Zunino

02 May 2012

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The case of Liam Stacey, jailed for 56 days for posting racist comments on Twitter, shows the legal challenges presented by microblogging and the blurring of the distinctions between broadcaster and audience, and public and private.

Let’s get this clear: what Liam Stacey did was wrong, very wrong. The scourge of racism and the dangers of hate speech have punctuated the last century and no efforts should be spared to eradicate them.

Liam Stacey’s comments on Twitter about Fabrice Muamba were certainly racist, of awfully bad taste and morally reprehensible but should they have resulted in a jail term, however short? 

Nevertheless, the necessity of a prison sentence is not the only issue at stake. 

Modern technologies, such as blogging have opened the possibility of many more people accessing the airwaves. Anybody with a Twitter account can broadcast to the world.

The interactive features of blogging platforms allow audiences to reply and to broadcast themselves. Audiences and broadcasters are not as easily identifiable.

The ease of access of microblogging services, which can be used at any time from a mobile phone, even after an afternoon of drinking, illustrates how the distinction between the public and private areas has become blurred.

Any comment, thought, or opinion - however rash, thoughtless, downright stupid or awfully abusive - posted on the internet in a matter of seconds becomes part of the public domain. And it can be used against you.

The erasure of distinctions appears to have broadened rights and responsibilities. Bloggers, and microbloggers, deserve the protection that law awards to journalists. Their role in the recent Arab spring has emphasised their importance.

Yet, should they also shoulder the responsibilities traditionally imposed on journalists and broadcasters?

The democratisation of the airwaves prompted by new technologies puts in evidence the obsolescence of legal structures built for traditional media. It also calls for redefining the limits between private and public life.

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