Thursday, 7 February 2013

Harassment, social media, and how the law is coping

As I have mentioned before, I am eagerly awaiting the publication of the next issue of LegalIncite in order to, amongst other things, find out whether my article Hashtags and Timelines: New Challenges for Legislators (working title) has been published.

Briefly my article addresses two issues: how courts and legislators seem to constantly find themselves at odds with new technology such as Twitter and Facebook, and how UK laws may not be adequate to the new legal challenges presented to us by the abuse of social media and new technologies.

In my article I briefly address the following cases:

  • Liam Stacey of Swansea was jailed for 56 days having been found guilty of an offence under s4A of the Public Order Act 1986 after tweeting racially aggravated abuse of footballer Fabrice Muamba[i]
  • Facebook user Mitchell Stancombe was charged and sentenced to 3 years in jail following an offence under s.44 of the Serious Crime Act 2007 when he posted “When are we going to start the Southampton riots then?” on his Timeline[ii]
  • Another Facebook user, Matthew Woods, was sentenced to 12 weeks in jail for offences under s127 when he posted “jokes” about missing 5-year-old April Jones [iii]

This is an area that I find quite interesting and so I keep an eye on the development of these cases, and of similar cases, and commentary on similar issues. I am also interested in observing the development of similar cases elsewhere in the world and this article caught my eye today:

It's interesting to see how differently America treat Twitter/Facebook and free speech. Perhaps that is a direct product of having a written constitution and clearly enforceable inalienable rights to which citizens feel a close personal connection. This post was on the Above the Law blog from which I quote:

I’m all for holding people accountable for their racist behavior.
But I also love children. I love allowing children to behave like children — nasty, violent children. Adults can be expected to behave with appropriate decorum, but you have to cut kids a little slack.
Liam Stacey and Mitchell Stancombe were both 21 at the time of their offences, and Matthew Woods was 19, but we can still wonder whether the sentences are proportionate and consistent with the offence, and each other.

Many similar cases can be found with a quick online search and trolls are not a new phenomenon. Certainly harassment and racism are not new either, and there are several US tumblr collations of quite explicit Twitter racism and violence at a level which seems quite different to that in the UK so far, or at least, these cases have not reached UK courts or been given media coverage, even before the publication of the interim guidelines on prosecuting cases involving communications sent via social media. It would be interesting to see how the CPS would handle these cases, and the direction the courts would take.

For now, I will keep an eye on the development of a few cases and perhaps write more if the developments are interesting.

[ii] Facebook “timelines” (also called “walls”, or “profiles”) are where user content such as statuses, links, and photos are shared for friends to see.
[iii] - Blog

Wednesday, 6 February 2013

In a man's world

"Whatever women do they must do twice as well as men to be thought half as good. Luckily, this is not difficult."
When I was about 12, living in Portugal, the school bus driver and some younger male children on the bus were discussing a Benfica football game from the night before. We all supported the same team, so I chipped in with a comment that I no longer remember. What I do remember is the way the bus driver turned around and shouted at me while still driving the bus: "You, shut up! If we want to talk to talk about make-up and dresses we'll ask for your opinion but until then you shut up!" This is certainly one of the earliest and most direct forms of sexism I have experienced.

I recalled this episode recently after watching a fascinating documentary called Miss Representation which addresses the role of powerful women in America and the way that they are treated by the mainstream media. The film made several interesting points beyond those which I am most used to hearing; for instance, it talked about how female politicians are commented on in terms of fashion and style rather than policies and argued that they are described with 'charged' stereotypical language referring to their opinions as 'complaints' rather than 'comments', describing them with derogatory words such as 'bitch' but also the usual objectification of 'hot', etc. This is well illustrated in this video from Saturday Night Live with comedienne Tina Fey, in reference to Sarah Palin and Hillary Clinton during the 2008 US presidential election (edit: I couldn't find a non-edited video but here is a transcript*)

The documentary also touched on a series of other similar situations, such as the near-unbelievable objectification of American female news anchors and the stark contrast to their male counterparts, it discussed the role of "women's stories" in Hollywood, and how young girls are not shown that they can hold positions of power. More than that, little boys are taught that to be real men they must be more powerful and more successful than women, rather than equal, and never show weakness or emotion.

The documentary tells us that "only 34 women have served as governors compared to 2319 men" (now 35), and that US legislators tend to be picked from white, Christian, married (straight), college educated, over-40s males. Thankfully, from a brief glance at the House of Commons, the situation in the UK is slightly better. Certainly there are better parity laws, even if they are far from being a decent finished product (is any law timeless?). One example of this is the better recognition of paternity leave.

I've always had practical experience of sexism by virtue of being a woman, not often as blunt as my earlier example, but not always far off. However, it is only recently that I have come to recognise and accept that this does not have to be normal. Some friends of mine that have recently had children are making me realise the level of compartmentalisation (to not use the baggage of 'conditioning') to which children of either sex are subjected. I do not necessarily know what can be done on a larger scale to address this societal issue but what I do believe is that having an individual awareness of the situation is a good first step to changing things.