Man jailed for Facebook trolling

On 09 July a man named Reece Elliot was sent to prison for 28 months by a judge at Newcastle Crown Court. He had been found guilty of making a threat to kill and sending “grossly offensive messages”.   In February this year, Elliot had sent messages to a Facebook group set up to pay tribute to two girls from Warren Country, an area of Tennessee in the USA, who had died in a car accident. These messages were abusive, violent and targetted the dead girls and their families.  

The administrators of the Facebook groups tried to have Elliot banned from the site. Elliot responded by posting more messages to the page. In one of these messages he claimed that he was going to try and kill 200 school students in Warren County, before killing himself. Worried Facebook users contacted the Tennessee police, who shut almost half of the county’s schools.

Despite the fact that he was unable to carry out his threats- he lived in England and Tennessee is an American state- Elliot was jailed because he caused a huge amount of fear and disruption to people’s lives.

Jailed for a joke
In July last year judges in London overturned the conviction of Paul Chambers for threatening to blow up an airport in Nottingham in a message he posted on Twitter. In 2010 Chambers had been planning to fly to Ireland, but found that his local airport had been closed due to cold weather. In frustration, he tweeted that the airport had “a week to get itself together”, or he would “blow it sky high”.

Chambers repeatedly told the police and prosecutors that the Tweet was intended as a Joke, but he was prosecuted for “sending a menacing communication”. Users of Twitter- where controversial comments and offensive jokes are very common- objected to the conviction and claimed that it threatened their freedom of speech. After a long campaign, supported by both Twitter users and celebrities, Paul Chambers’ record was wiped clean.

In both Paul Chambers and Reece Elliot’s case, the police chose to take trolling seriously. Trolling involves posting deliberately offensive or aggressive material onto webpage comment threads or social networks. Threats and rudeness are common in many online communities, especially social websites used by young people. Sometimes trolling can become bullying – aggressive comments deliberately targeted at a particular person.

Teachers, policemen, politicians and lawyers often call for stricter control over the contents of social networks. Some experts have even called for tweets and Facebook posts to be checked, by a computer or another person, before they can be seen by other internet users.

Should more be done to censor and monitor information that people share online? Were the courts right to sentence Reece Elliot to more than two years in prison? Were they wrong when they released Paul Chambers? Should young people, who are generally less mature than adults, be given access to public social networks like Twitter?

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A BBC news report about the trial of Reece Elliot

A guide to laws that can affect Twitter users

A report by The Guardian on the conviction of Paul Chambers for sending threatening tweets

A BBC report about plans by the British government to make it easier to force websites to identify internet trolls

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