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NEWS ANALYSIS - Is it time to get tough on Twitter?

By Burton Mail  |  Posted: January 27, 2014

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AS the social networking giant that is Twitter continues to grow, the powers that be are facing a difficult task in trying to keep it under control.

From its humble 2006 beginnings, it has become a monster, with around a quarter of the British public now having a Twitter account in addition to the many millions more around the world.

It is undoubtedly one of the most defining creations of the 21st century.

Think of a successful company. It has a Twitter account. It has somebody monitoring what is being said about it on Twitter and huge significance is placed on what is gleaned from that information.

The Mail is no different. We too have a Twitter account and it is viewed as a valuable tool for reaching our readers, particularly with a breaking news story.

When Twitter began to catch on with the stars there was an excitement that ‘ordinary’ people could have an insight into celebrities’ lives that they had never been able to access before.

People loved the fact they could see what Ricky Gervais was watching on TV, what Lily Allen was having for breakfast or Russell Brand’s musings on British politics.

But ever more increasingly, Twitter’s dark underbelly is being revealed.

The pull of Twitter was that is was open to anybody and you could write whatever you wanted - in 140 character bursts.

The content did not have to be checked and deemed acceptable by someone in charge before it was placed in the public domain, there for everyone to see.

And while there are plenty of things to be celebrated about that - a sort of victory for freedom of speech - many people have found to their cost that there are certain things you cannot get away with.

The debate around Twitter was cast back into the spotlight last week when Staffordshire-based ex-footballer and now BBC Radio 5 Live presenter Stan Collymore blasted the social networking site after receiving a barrage of abuse - some of it racist - from users after posting his fairly innocuous views on a Premier League football match.

He accused Twitter of not doing enough to tackle ‘racist, homophobic and sexist hate messages’.

Two people, including a man from Derbyshire, were also arrested after allegedly posting racist comments following the disappearance of three-year-old Mikaeel Kular in Edinburgh, while Peaches Geldof found herself in hot water after breaking strict anonymity laws when naming the mothers of babies abused by disgraced Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins on Twitter.

David Bamford specialises in training and consultancy in the misuse of social media.

He has worked with police forces in Britain and has also done extensive work in Belgium and the Far East.

When not globe-trotting, he is at his desk in his South Derbyshire office and lives in a village near Burton.

He believes that people think they are safe from retribution and are somehow protected from prosecution because they are writing something online.

“People seem to think they are anonymous when they use it,” he said. “There is an element of people who will communicate hatred on Twitter but would not do so in real life. They feel there is a safety barrier, that they are anonymous and can get away with it.”

While, according to Mr Bamford, others are just ignorant of the law.

“A lot of people don’t see the danger of making these comments, they don’t see themselves as being open to prosecution and don’t consider the possible outcomes of their actions,” he said.

“There is freedom of speech but there is irresponsible criminal use of it as well.

“I’m a firm believer that if you are unsure of whether you should say something on a social network then you shouldn’t say it. If it is something you wouldn’t put on the back of a postcard to your granny then don’t say it.

“Would you be comfortable putting the message on a big billboard outside your house? Less people would see it than on Twitter.

“Even if you later delete it, it can be retweeted and people can take screenshots.”

The Government recently took steps to try and stop people committing criminal acts on social networking sites.

‘Advisory notes’ will be published on the Government’s websites, informing people of subjects which they are legally banned from discussing.

Mr Bamford admitted police chiefs are frustrated with certain elements of how Twitter is run, but also defended the site, saying that it would take time to implement change.

He said: “There are rules already. There are terms and conditions of use. Collymore was critical of Twitter but things do not always happen overnight. But it is here to stay and it is difficult to control.

“I think there are some changes that need to be made but legislation takes a while to come through.

“One of the biggest problems with social media now is that it is transnational and users can mask their ID when creating an account, which can make it almost impossible to catch them.

“Police are most likely frustrated with the slowness of change. What you find with social media sites is that there is different levels of service across the world. Some will be really co-operative with inquiries, but other might not respond.”

But rather than being a constant menace to police, sites like Twitter and Facebook can also aid investigations.

Mr Bamford continued: “It can be useful when putting together criminal investigations and a useful tool for gathering intelligence.

“Conversations can be monitored and it can almost be used as a jigsaw for a prosecution case. For example, with the bomber in Boston, the first thing they did was look at his social media activity, what groups he was in, his interests and who he was communicating with.

“The best example is Anders Breivik, the Norwegian mass murderer who carried out the massacre on the island and planted the bomb in Oslo. When police retrospectively looked at his online accounts the signs were there.

“He had circulated documents on social media and there was a YouTube video. On his Facebook profile picture he was holding a machine gun.

“So it can be a very useful tool, but it can also be used maliciously.”

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