Getting Arrested for a Tweet: The Age of the Post-Anonymous Internet

Can saying terrible things on the internet land you in jail?

Thanks to social media, it looks like the answer is creeping closer to “yes.”

In March, a 21-year-old who drunkenly tweeted racist remarks was charged with “inciting racial hatred” in the United Kingdom. He was sent to prison for 56 days.

Two British boys, age 20 and 22, were sentenced to four years in prison for creating Facebook events about the rioting taking place in the summer of 2011.

Four years is also the standard sentence for people who have committed sexual assault.

The Spokesman-Review, a Washington newspaper, must reveal the name of an anonymous online poster who wrote disparaging comments about the chairwoman of a Kootenai County Republican Party.

Because Jacobson wants to take the commenter to court for defamation.

The Age of the Post-Anonymous Internet

All of the cases above seem to highlight one trend: the once care-free bastion of anonymity that was the internet is now becoming a very public and very visible place.

Social media is the major culprit. People once used it to connect with their close friends and that relationship has inevitably snowballed.

We now have commenters on blogs and news stories who are yelling at each other via their Facebook accounts, which display their real name, their workplace or institute of education, and their location, down to the city or town.

Or, think about this:  in the first half of 2012, the US government requested 679 user information reports from Twitter. Twitter complied with 75% of the requests. The US requested these reports at a rate that is approximately 700% the average of any nation (not many) asking for this kind of information.

Social media has become a favorite of divorce lawyers, too.

Yes, it appears that, after all of these years of rampant personal expression in the lawless land of online pseudonyms, identity is catching up to us.

But are we catching up to identity?

No, we’re not the same online as we are in the real world. 

The problem with using Facebook as evidence of any kind in any situation is that the persona being projected on Facebook is often not the real person behind the keyboard. It’s either who the person wishes they were or who they want their Facebook friends to think they are.

Writing, by its very definition, is a solo act. It’s transcribing thoughts on paper. Many times, it’s unfiltered thoughts. Even by blogging about our feelings, we’re effectively creating a narrative about those feelings and what we think about them.

Then, everyone else gets to interpret those unspoken feelings in their own voices.

That can lead to identity miscommunication that leads to lopsided and vaguely psychotic custody battles over children, college kids getting arrested for making what were potentially sarcastic event invitations to riots, and everything else.

Sure, I want to be social online with my friends. Unfortunately, those exchanges now come with the exorbitantly high price tag of visibility.

People who say “Well, don’t post bad things on social media,” did not grow up with social media.

There are all sorts of snarky articles about not posting things you’ll regret later on social media. That’s easy to say when you’re not in the tunnel-funnel of adolescence:

Think back to middle school and high school. Imagine if all the stupid, terrible, ignorant things you did and said just to be cool were recorded.

Well, that’s a reality now. My little brother is 14. He has little interest in Facebook, but some of his friends are also my friends. They post some pretty regrettable material.

But they won’t regret it until another ten years, when the fog of hormones has faded.

Similarly, no one understands what social media is in relation to our real lives.

I thought about this when I recently saw that the State of New York was spending thousands of dollars in taxpayer money to charge an Occupy protester with disorderly conduct, because apparently the hundreds who were already charged after being misled and trapped on the Brooklyn Bridge last fall didn’t meet quota.

For context.

During the trial, Judge Matthew Sciarrino Jr. explained that, “If you post a tweet, just like if you scream it out the window, there is no reasonable expectation of privacy.”

This is a gross misunderstanding of what social media is and threatens everything that is “social” and interesting whatsoever.

Everyone seemed floored by Sciarrino’s analogy (which was backed up with an even more distasteful and less relevant analogy to domestic abuse). The Blaze crooned about Sciarrino’s social media “savvy.”

Why isn’t tweeting like shouting out a window? Because there are 340 million tweets every day and 500 million active users.

There’s not just a reasonable belief that what one individual tweets – or dare I say posts on Facebook, which has 900 million users – will have relatively little influence on the outcome of anything. It’s basically an inescapable fact.

Heck, if lonely people posting crap on the internet had any influence at all, we would at the very least have an effective Congress.

I don’t want to speculate on the case itself – I’m more interested in how the legal world is looking at social media.

For example, did you know that Facebook has software that monitors your activity for possible criminal behavior?

Oh, but don’t worry – it only examines interactions between people who have “loose” relationships. According to CNET:

“If two users aren’t friends, only recently became friends, have no mutual friends, interact with each other very little, have a significant age difference, and/or are located far from each other, the tool pays particular attention.”

So… uh… basically, it can monitor anything at any time.

The Two Big Consequences of the Post-Anonymous Internet

The internet has made it possible for people to express themselves instantaneously. The disadvantage now is that, with so many users, you need something with the potential velocity of social media to stand out.

Most of the time, that means that authors choose to go by their real names, too. Traditional publishing is dead. Heck, we need to build up a portfolio somehow. 

After all, everyone else is doing it, right?

Problem 1: Expression goes vanilla.

I scream, you scream, we all scream for homogeneous thoughts & dreams!

I know that I’ve already self-censored a dozen or so political blog posts just because of employment prospects or a general unwillingness to put myself in the spotlight. I mean, I get enough flak for some of my political posts already.

I’ve already wondered whether those posts will affect my future chances at employment. All it would take is a conservative employer to read some posts and decide that my values weren’t lined up with the company’s.

But what’s the alternative? A gradual vanilla-fication of all blogs. A thin, lukewarm broth of ideas with very little thought-provoking material left.

That’s what happened to television and newspapers – they went corporate and had to go vanilla. Now, with the ease of searching and profiling anybody, there’s a risk that the internet can go corporate and force everyone to go vanilla there, too.

In fact, since basically anything published or protested these days goes online, including quotes from people with their full names or simple comments on other blog posts, that means that almost any activity will end up getting recorded online.

2. We take monitoring for granted.

I thought about this when I came across a recent New York Times article about how parents were buying all sorts of technology to make sure their children didn’t get into trouble on their smartphones.

One father insisted that his daughters should get used to having their private activities routinely invaded.

“Mr. Sherman says they should learn that they will be monitored throughout their lives: ‘It’s not any different from any employer.'”

But that’s a little scary, isn’t it?

Mr. Sherman’s 13-year-old daughter doesn’t think so. She says that it makes her feel safer, to know that her father is tracking her Facebook activity with “MinorMonitor,” which is a program that investigates any references to just about anything, and boasts “an in-depth analysis” of wall posts, status updates, and more.

If these children are habituated to being monitored from birth, there’s a much greater chance that they will never take the risks in expression that they should.

Tracking technology will show children from a very early age that it’s best to be of one mind with their monitors about what is wrong and what is right, what they should and shouldn’t see.

That opens up the gateway for, say, governmental monitoring, too.

After all, when you’ve grown up being watched by your phone and your computer all your life, why would you protest it?

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