What #IAmSpartacus Says About Free Speech On Twitter

By now, you’ve likely heard about the Paul Chambers “bomb threat” fiasco on Twitter. The recent surge of support for Chambers and, more generally, free speech on the internet has taken over Twitter by storm, with the #IAmSpartacus trending topic becoming a gathering place for people who want to show their solidarity. So why did this issue blow up, so to speak, over Twitter while others faded into obscurity? And what does this say about the power of the many?

First, a little background to get everyone caught up on the details of the situation.

Last January, Paul Chambers was headed to Robin Hood Airport in his native Northern Ireland to meet a woman. However, flights were grounded due to a snowstorm, and he missed his meeting. So, turning to Twitter, Chambers vented his frustration:

“Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week to get your shit together, otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!!”

That Tweet started a huge snowball effect, eventually culminating in a worldwide discussion about free speech online.

The authorities got their hands on the Tweet, and convicted Chambers for causing a menace, requiring him to pay a rather hefty fine. And late last week, a judge refused to overturn his conviction, causing the Twitter-verse to go wild with outrage.

It’s clear where the majority (or at least the vocal) of users stand on the issue. The #IAmSpartacus hashtag was created for users to rally around in support of Chambers and free speech. Many repeated exactly the perilous Tweet that got Chambers into so much trouble, with the prevailing notion that the authorities can’t arrest everyone. The sentiment was that Chambers was just being hyperbolic, and clearly had no intention of actually blowing up the airport.

The hundreds and possibly thousands of people who joined in on this trending topic started a digital protest, one which is getting world-wide recognition. News outlets caught onto the #IAmSpartacus story on Friday, and it’s been going around the blogosphere and traditional media streams alike. There’s no word yet on whether Chambers will file another appeal, but if he does, you can bet that public sentiment will play a role in the decision – the justice system hasn’t been able to fully understand the nature of digital communication, and they’re looking to set precedence.

So was this a grassroots movement that successfully brought free speech to the forefront of the collective mind? Partially. It is rather ludicrous that Chambers was slapped with a criminal record for his Tweet. And it sets a dangerous precedent for anyone who has vented on Twitter. The power of Twitter relies on exactly the kind of mass movement that resulted from Chambers’ conviction: the many vocalizing their stance on an issue without fear of censure.

However, Twitter, just like any tool, needs to be used responsibly. Now, in all likelihood, anyone planning to blow up a building wouldn’t broadcast it on Twitter – but what about an enraged employee threatening his workplace? Or a jilted ex threatening to get revenge? These scenarios could be acted upon, if the Tweeter is in a fit of rage or depression.

There is a fine line between sarcasm or hyperbole on the one hand and thinly veiled threats on the other when you’re reading Tweets. Because of the textually-mediated form of communication, you can’t see or hear the speaker – the only information you have to go on is the text. If someone posted “I’m going to kill my boss!” on Twitter, most people would take it as a frustrated over-statement. But what if it was the first sign of someone becoming unhinged?

We need to be aware of what we say, especially in a public place like Twitter. Anyone has access to what you Tweet. It’s the responsibility of both the individual and the legal system to provide the parameters of what constitutes free speech and what speech is intended to cause harm.

Perhaps Chambers shouldn’t have been convicted and fined, but the case does pose several interesting questions that society has to now work through. Should Twitter be a free-for-all forum where anything goes and nothing can be taken seriously? Should any potential threat be reprimanded? There needs to be a balance struck, and the people of Twitter have the power to do so.