Here Cometh the Twitter Trolls (Still, Again?)

12/08/2012 13:58 BST | Updated 12/10/2012 10:12 BST

Tom Daley missing out on a medal in the synchro 10m diving caused a flame war and a night time arrest of the tweeter allegedly responsible. A Port Talbot Town FC player was also arrested for an alleged homophobic tweet at Tom Daley. Of course Tom Daley isn't the first (or the last) victim of Twitter trolls - in the last week we've also seen the BBC's Blue Peter presenter Helen Skelton sign off Twitter saying her skin wasn't thick enough and one half of Channel 4's Location, Location, Location double act Kirsty Allsopp bare her soul about the very personal and emotional damage the trolls have done to her. (Unspeakable things were tweeted.)

Of course, sometimes it's not just the Twitter trolls causing the harm. A number of high profile individuals have also got into trouble with ill-advised tweets. Cricketers were fined during the summer of 2010, e.g. sacked England under-19 captain Azeem Rafiq was fined and suspended for using the f-word, the c-word and the w-word in a tweet about the ECB's elite player development manager, as was Dimitri Mascarenhas for a twitter attack on the ECB's national selector.

There can be financial consequences to ill-judged tweets too. Australian Olympic swimmer Stephanie Rice was dropped by her sponsor Jaguar in 2010 (and had to hand back the car) after tweeting an insult about defeated opponents which was characterised as homophobic ("suck on that, faggots", she tweeted).

So can we tackle the issue?

Depending the nature of the tweet, the police can step in. The police can avail themselves of a patchwork of public order and communications law to do this, including that it is an offence to send a message that is "grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character". It's also an offence to cause harassment, alarm or distress by a course of conduct which amounts to harassment of another. And it's an offence to use with intent threatening, abusive or insulting words which cause another person harassment, alarm or distress.

For example, in the recent Twitter joke trial Paul Chambers was actually prosecuted for sending a menacing tweet. Chambers has only just had his conviction overturned on appeal because saying "Crap! Robin Hood airport is closed. You've got a week and a bit to get your shit together otherwise I'm blowing the airport sky high!!" to his followers out of pure frustration that his flight to see his girlfriend was cancelled did not amount to a message which was "menacing" in character. (There must be intent.)

If the police decide not to get involved, dealing with the trolls is much more complicated, expensive and time consuming. Because most trolls don't tweet under their own names it will involve getting a court order to serve to reveal the identity of a troll. But they take months to obtain. For example, Nicola Brooks suffered online abuse in late 2011, which was not dealt with by her local police, and it took her until June 2012 to get a court order to get IP addresses and other information about her bullies, to enable her to consider a private prosecution. It should be said that Twitter (and Facebook) treat such orders seriously.

Because of this identification difficulty, the UK government is proposing an addition to the Defamation Bill, currently before Parliament, to give new powers to enable the victims to identify their on-line aggressors more easily.

And what is appropriate Twitter behaviour, anyway?

The best tweets would appear to be those which conform to the original vision of co-founder and executive chairman of Twitter Jack Dorsey: He said that the word "Twitter" was "just perfect: ...a short burst of inconsequential information".

This approach is echoed in the IOC Guidelines on "Social Media, Blogging and Internet" for athletes and other accredited persons at the London 2012 games. The IOC clearly endorses the value of social medial and advises postings, blogs or tweets "must be in a first person-diary-type format" and they must not amount to reports on the competition or comments on the activities of other athletes or accredited individuals. There is a ban on disclosing information which is confidential or private and on any posting, blog or tweet which fails to "conform to the Olympic spirit". In particular, there must be no "vulgar or obscene words or images".

Any organisation (especially those which are particularly subject to media and public scrutiny) would be well advised to develop their own policy and training programme about use of social media, implementing the 'best practice' as described above. It would be prudent to incorporate it in its staff handbook - in the same way as best practice on general internet use or issues of diversity and discrimination are now standard elements of practice and training.

There is reason to think that social media use has truly come of age in 2012, and organisations would be well advised to seek to capitalise on its advantages whilst avoiding the pitfalls which can lead to almost instantaneous damage.

Remember, there's no such thing as "delete" in social media!