What are the limits of free speech on Twitter?

Caution: not for sensitive readers. 

What are the limits to free speech on Twitter? Is the “report spam” function enough? Should trolls be censured?

In the UK, racist trolling will get you arrested and jailed, as student Liam Stacey discovered recently after tweeting racist comments about footballer Fabrice Muamba and then referring to people who complained as “wogs”. Stacey was jailed for 56 days after being prosecuted under the Racially Aggravated s4A Public order Act 1986.

He initially claimed his account had been hacked. A similar defence was mounted by the law student who targeted football commentator Stan Collymore with racist tweets. Joshua Cryer was sentenced to two years of community service and ordered to pay legal costs.

In the US, Arizona reached the headlines last week for a new law which criminalises “offensive” online communication.

But what about a country like South Africa where there are no clear guidelines for behaviour on Twitter? Users can block somebody or report spam, and presumably if there’s a clear-cut case of hate speech, you could take it before the Human Rights Commission (an independent body tasked with redressing human rights violations).

The rules of Twitter engagement were brought into sharp relief by rather odd exchange on Friday last week, involving hot cross buns, Islam and an escaped python.

It started when a number of users raised objections to tweets by a man called Richard Catto.

Catto is not the most likeable character you’re ever likely to encounter online. When Twitter went into uproar about a national retailer sticking Halaal labels on its hot cross buns, Catto appeared to take full advantage, updating his Facebook status and tweeting about how putting a Halaal mark on hot cross buns was tantamount to crucifying Christ all over again — “pure hyperbole” he says.

Sadly I didn’t have the presence of mind to screen grab them, as he subsequently deleted them, but this tweet gives a flavour of the earlier ones:

At the same time as the hot cross debate was getting heated, two escaped pythons in Johannesburg started tweeting as @SandtonPython. After Dolce was found, Gabbana continued tweeting. In the wake of requests from the public to take care of a variety of political figures, he offered his services to those who had objected to the Islam tweets:

The snake later tweeted @TheJoLurie:

Catto spotted these tweets and responded:

To which Joanne Lurie responded:

Catto then laid into her, she gave as good as she got — she called him a “cocktard” — and things just went downhill from there. There are far too many tweets to show here, but this was one that shocked a lot of people:

”You gonna get raped” is an old internet meme. “Rape is a topic which hits most women right between the eyes, which is why that meme tends to shock most women into silence when they get hit with it, especially if they haven’t seen it before,” Catto later explained to me.

Several others who had noticed the exchange also got involved. The tweet below gives an idea of the quality of debate:

At one point, Catto’s address and phone number were tweeted with the suggestion that somebody pay him a visit.

Catto later adopted a more conciliatory tone, offering to call Lurie to discuss the issue and posting this tweet:

He also deleted the tweets that others had objected to.

I later asked Catto what on earth he was up to. He explained that his hot cross bun tweets were trolling, but were not directed at anybody. To find them, people would have had to search for them. As for the other exchanges, he says he didn’t start them: “I don’t pick fights with random people by insulting them. I first engage them on a topic and I refrain from personal insults until they do, then they’re fair game.” (Go back and look at the tweets that started all the trouble and make up your own mind.)

When I asked Catto why he deleted his tweets he said: “I tried to inject some humour into the exchanges, but no-one was biting. During a lull, I just cleared it all out.”

Catto is adamant that he was in the right. “Trolling people is not an invitation to random strangers to insult me,” he says. “Trolling is a means to getting people excited about a topic, rather than excited about throwing insults about me about… It’s an old apartheid idea and attitude. Censor all that does not fit into your tight mould.”



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