TWITTER: So what can and can't you REALLY say online?


Ahh, another day another Twitter controversy. So are there really any clear cut rules when it comes to what we can and can’t say on Twitter? Or are we all still pretty clueless?

I’m sure I’m not the only one who’d say something more risky on Twitter than I ever would in a blog post. As tweets are published in real-time the highly addictive micro-blogging platform seems more like a stream of consciousness than anywhere else online, so thoughts about that celebrity’s stupid hair or what you’re craving for lunch may be ridiculously irritating, but also just seem like natural observations you’d share with your followers.

However, Twitter’s instantaneous and arguably more honest nature means that there have been countless occasions over the past few years when users have tweeted things they really shouldn’t have done, which has led to rather serious consequences.

Just a few of those who’ve got into big boy trouble recently include…

Liam Stacey, who was jailed for 56 days after tweeting racially abusive messages about footballer Fabrice Muamba.

Jordan Blackshaw, who was jailed for four years after creating a Facebook event during the London riots.

Paul Chambers, who was fined after tweeting about blowing up Robin Hood airport.

Peter Copeland, who received a four month suspended jail sentence after posting racially abusive messages about Newcastle United fans.

Oh and there was also the chance that EVERY user who mentioned details of Ryan Giggs’ super-injunction could be arrested too. But obviously that didn’t happen.

From the examples above you can tell it’s not really rocket science. If you say something racially offensive or threaten to blow something up and start a riot chances are you might get in trouble. If you started shouting those kinds of things at people in the street you’d face the same kinds of consequences. Or just be written off as an insane shouting person who everyone scuttles past as fast as they can.

However, there are much more specific cases that have caused problems too that don’t seem as clear cut. Today you may have seen the drama between Grace Dent and a PR executive who likened her to an “abhorrent horse” in a tweet. Granted if he was just a regular guy there’d be no harm in it, but he actually works for a PR company that somehow works with Dent too (we don’t know the exact details, sorry). Of course what he said wasn’t nice, but then Dent replied saying he’d be unemployed today, which seems a little like primary school tactics. Shame on them both. In this case his position changes things, obviously there are no legal implications for calling someone a horse, but it depends what his employers think of his public ranting.

Interestingly this case proves there’s a very grey area when it comes to offensive comments online. Of course celebrities and those in the public eye have to accept that they’ll get a LOT of criticism in the street, at a bar and on Twitter, but where’s the line between criticism and comments that cause genuine offence? Maybe that’s a question for Frankie Boyle or Ricky Gervais, whose jokes raise a lot of interesting issues about what’s humour, what’s bad taste or what could get them in serious trouble.

So who needs to take responsibility for what’s said online?

Well many have called for more visible guidelines on social networks that may help users understand what they can and can’t say. However, should these platforms really take responsibility for what some silly people end up saying? That’s like falling over a book and suing the author (yes, we’re aware that some waste of life somewhere has probably done this at some point).

The answer really is pretty simple, users need to be more aware of what they’re saying, regardless of where they’re saying (or typing) it. Only last week Noel Edmonds called for people to be more responsible for their online activities. Despite admitting he’s ABSOLUTELY CLUELESS when it comes to social media, he does raise a good (if blindingly obvious) point in that we have to take responsibility for what we’re doing all the time.

But again that doesn’t answer the question: WHAT CAN WE ACTUALLY SAY?

We’re sorry. There’s no clear cut answer. But basically just think about what you’d say in public and anything obviously racially abusive, offensive or threatening could well get you in trouble no matter who you are.

When it comes to criticising certain people or expressing controversial opinions it’s a much more grey area and would depend on the circumstances. For example, if a 14 year old with 50 followers tweeted something about hating someone in the public eye it probably wouldn’t cause any harm, but if a politician with hundreds of thousands of followers laid into someone for no apparent reason then it could have more serious consequences. Granted they may not be arrested, but a tweet could well snowball into a pretty serious PR blunder.

We’ve all seen Bambi, right? Maybe we could learn a thing or two from that lovable little bunny Thumper when he (it’s a he, right?) said, “If you can’t say something nice… Don’t say nothing at all.” But where does that leave us when we’re watching a reality show and want to bitch about that silly man’s beard? We imagine Twitter would be a very different place if we eradicated ALL sarcasm and mild abuse. And we’re not sure we’d like that place much at all.

Becca Caddy


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  • I would also add that what makes a huge difference in the grace dent scenario compared to just generally tweeting something bitchy about someone, was that he directed his nasty comment not just to his own followers (which, whilst still not very nice, is probably seen as acceptable) but also sent it directly to grace by putting @gracedent into his message. Maybe it's a fine line to draw but I would say that's what makes it unacceptable. It's a pretty rude thing to say about a person when you are intentionally directing it at them and ensuring they will read it. Had he just mentioned her name, ie 'grace dent' she would have had to search her own name to see the comment. I just think its a spiteful / bitchy thing to send a rude direct message to someone that you don't even know personally and probably takes it a bit beyond the mark. I can't blame her for how she reacted anyway, let alone that he works for a pr company that she apparently uses.

  • good blog except mention of “Grey area” could be construde as reference to horses ,or as Frankie Howard would say “Neigh Neigh and thrice Neigh”

  • I was going to write a post on this, but I like yours so will just add a comment and tweet. My first observation would be that working for a PR company does change things. It means you're a professional communicator and therefore the bar is set higher as to what is and isn't acceptable. If you can't manage your personal communications then why should an employer or client trust you to manage it for others.

    You are right to say “The answer really is pretty simple, users need to be more aware of what they're saying, regardless of where they're saying (or typing) it.” Social network/media sites shouldn't need to provide guidelines as people should be able to exercise some common sense and personal control. If they can't, that's their responsibility and they need to be able to take the consequences. 

    • Completely agree with Stuart here, his job does change things and honestly, if you can't have enough foresight to see that this was (at best) ill advised, then I'm not sure he's in the right industry.  

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