Have you ever said something you regretted? Called someone a name, cursed someone out, questioned their loyalty? We all do it, we say something in the heat of the moment and then, once we calm down, wish we hadn’t said it. For the most part, a hug, a handshake, or a beer resolves the issue but if it happens online, it is there for eternity, or until the zombie apocalypse. What’s more, while something you say under your breath fades into the ether, remaining only in the memories of those who were in eyeshot of the comment, a comment made online has the potential to be read by an unknown number of people.
A recent case in Windsor highlighted this when a 14yr old girl was arrested for making death threats through Facebook. Pause for a moment and think about that. A 14yr old girl, who for whatever reason, has a grudge with another girl and in a moment of anger posts something. It may have been a simple expression of frustration or a legitimate threat but whatever the motive, what was written on Facebook was worrying enough for the victim to report it to the police.
It doesn’t have to be a death threat for someone to fall foul of the law. While a false statement about a person that causes harm to that person, that is spoken is considered slander, printing or writing the statement is libel, communicating the false statement (ie via the internet) is defamation. What is considered harm in the case of defamation? It can range from inferring that someone having bad morals, to exposing someone to hatred, to affecting someone’s financial income or well-being, to causing someone to be avoided by others for false reasons.
To bring charges the victim would have to provide proof of the crime which, while being obvious to the victim, may not be as black and white to law enforcement. In the case of anonymous abuse, the identification of the person must also be discovered. While it isn’t
All of the above seems to make using email, social media, or even texting a legal minefield that can blow up in your face at anytime. You joke with a lover that you are going to kill them when you get home for something silly they have done, something you have said to them in person a multitude of times. The romance goes sour and the next thing you know, there is a police officer at the door asking why you threatened to kill your ex.
In most workplaces where electronic communication is used, the normal guidelines is never send anything that you wouldn’t want read out in court, because as soon as you click on ‘Send’ there is a digital record of what you have written stored which may be subpoenaed by a court. It is a good guideline to follow when online at home although it can be much more difficult to stay within the lines when not dealing solely with work related matters.
The issue with online communications is that it is still a relatively new technology, and one that teenagers have grown up with, while those who remember the 80’s have had to learn to adapt to this online phenomenon. As adults, emotions should be easier to control, and more thought can be had before sending a possibly troublesome message. For teenagers and younger, the lack of experience, raging hormones, and perhaps an unrealistic view of the world influenced by media directed at them, means that things are written that shouldn’t have, and once the message is sent, it is too late.
While a moment of online anger could mean a police record or worse, real threats are made every day, defamation occurs all the time, and people who are arrested really did mean to carry out what they have written. The online world is still safer than the real world.