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Retweeting: the new 999

The arrest of a man for tweeting at footballer Carlton Cole shows the Twittersphere has become a hive of grasses.

Patrick Hayes

Topics Free Speech

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‘Listen, I take racism a lot lighter than others and I do understand the banter that comes along with it to get under people’s skin, but…’

So tweeted West Ham footballer Carlton Cole on Saturday. His team had just lost 3-0 to Swansea, and he was receiving a lot of the flak for it on Twitter. One 22-year-old fan from Southend, Essex, using the Twitter username @owliehammer, had been particularly bilious.‘3-0? 3 fucking nil??’, he tweeted. ‘Get the fuck away from my club u fucking useless nigger cunt.’

Having received the message, Cole was evidently faced with a situation: should he report the tweet with the knowledge that the tweeter could face the criminal consequences, or should he ignore it? Cole chose the middle ground, retweeting the offensive message and saying, ‘whether I am crap or had a bad game has nothing to do with my race, creed or religion. Let’s just keep it FOOTBALL. Kapeesh?’

On the pitch, in the dressing room, or face-to-face, this reconciliatory approach may well have been effective – dealing with the situation reasonably, informally, man-to-man. But, as is evident from what happened next, such an approach is now simply impossible on Twitter.

While it seems Cole didn’t personally call the police himself, his retweet acted as a klaxon call for hundreds of Twitterers to begin to lobby the authorities for @owliehammer to be thrown off Twitter, banned from West Ham games and locked up. ‘Who is racially abusing you? Out them’, said one Twitter user. Others started tweeting: ‘I think that merits the Metropolitan Police’; and ‘report the idiot’. Soon people were boasting of the fact they had contacted the police – ‘looks like I’ve just called the old bill! How can you be racist to anyone! I hope the police take good care of u.’ Others, like Twitter-user Darren Oakley, encouraged others to report ‘the idiot’: ‘Everyone, please report @owliehammer to the police as I have done for his racist abuse of Carlton Cole. Let’s get this neanderthal locked up.’

Members of the Twitterati soon joined in, with Telegraph football correspondent Henry Winter tweeting: ‘I hope the police take action over the racist abuse aimed at @CarltonCole1 on Twitter tonight. #kickitout.’ This was retweeted 445 times with loyal followers tweeting Winter to say they had snitched to the cops. Winter responded to one of these tweeters with a virtual pat on the back: ‘Good move, Warren. Regards.’

To the delight of many in the Twittersphere, Twitter duly suspended @owliehammer’s account, it was reported that West Ham was ‘certain to ban the tweeter’, and Essex police announced they had responded to complaints by arresting @owliehammer. ‘God bless Essex police!!!’ tweeted one West Ham season ticket holder. Jacqueline Gold, the daughter of West Ham co-chairman David Gold, and the CEO of Ann Summers, tweeted to her 28,000 followers: ‘Glad to hear someone has been arrested for racist remarks sent to @CarltonCole1. Idiots like this need to know they cant hide behind Twitter.’ Carlton Cole retweeted a tweet from the Essex police about @owliehammer being arrested to his 55,365 followers, without further comment.

It is true that you would have to be an idiot (or very drunk) to think you could get away with tweeting such horrible racist abuse on Twitter. As one user, Josh Dale, tweeted to Cole: ‘People like that are actually so dumb… saying it on Twitter is like shouting it out a megaphone in front of a police station.’ That is an accurate characterisation.

There are currently 340million tweets everyday, a number that is rapidly increasing. Obnoxious tweets are a tiny drop in that massive ocean, and they are only of significance when attention is actively drawn to them either by ostentatious offence-taking or through the act of flagging them up. The twitch-hunts, which we have seen against @owliehammer and against many before him, serve as a way of amplifying offensive tweets, turning them from inaudible squeaking to shouting at a cop with a loud speaker.

While it may seem like a way of dealing with a situation informally, celebrities retweeting and drawing attention to things they find offensive is now almost akin to dialling 999 and calling the cops themselves. They must know that their legion of loyal Twitter followers will squeal en masse to the cops for you.

Responding to Telegraph writer Winter’s suggestion that people grass @owliehammer to the police, one person tweeted: ‘”I disapprove of what you say, but I will defend to the death your right to say it”, a sentiment dead in UK.’ When more and more people are using Twitter to encourage the authorities to clamp down on free speech, it is beginning to look as if, on Twitter at least, that Voltarian sentiment is indeed long-deceased.

Patrick Hayes is a reporter for spiked. Visit his personal website here. Follow him on Twitter @p_hayes.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Free Speech

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