October 11, 2013 7:28 pm

On the mean tweets of Merseyside

‘Sometimes the police are right to act. But we also seem to be heading for a world in which it is a police matter to be an ass’
Illustration of twitter police©Lucas Varela

In the not-too-distant future, there will be an entire division of the police devoted to Twitter crime. Burglaries may go unsolved but the mean tweets will be forever policed.

This realisation came to me as I digested the news that Lord Sugar had found himself the subject of a police spotlight for “hate crime” over a tasteless remark to his 3 million followers. This was a case for the Twitter crime unit.

Even now I can imagine the TV show Twitter Squad; a hero cop tackling virtual crime, aided by his sidekick, an ambitious woman from the hashtag division. “All quiet, sir, some aggressive ‘lols’ and a case of someone buying counterfeit followers but nothing we can’t handle.”

In the Twitter Squad control room, operatives sit around huge terminals, all open at TweetDeck; messages under investigation are easily spotted by the white chalk line around the outside of the tweets. They are bolstered by some tough guys, whose task it is to go out and give a good slapping to Twitter trolls. I see a role for Ray Winstone in this; maybe Philip Glenister too.

Well, it may not make for compelling TV but can it be long before every force has large social media crimes team patrolling the Twitter Stream, handing out a gentle reproach before things get nasty and deploying that sarky tone they teach at police college – “Party finish early did it, sir, #nexttimeyourenicked”?

It would also be interesting to understand the pecking order. Do the Twitter Squad crave promotion to the Facebook Force or have to back off if the Pinterest Boys want to take the case?

If this seems far-fetched, consider that few weeks pass without the boys in blue hunting down a dangerous tweeter. Lord Sugar’s offence was to tweet an image of Chinese toddlers and observe that the one in tears was crying as it had been “told off for leaving the production line of the iPhone 5”. His remarks upset a Liverpool lady who reported it to the Merseyside Police. They concluded no crime had been committed but recorded it as a “hate incident”. In a statement the police said officers from the “specialist hate crime investigation team” would follow up with the lady. They refused to elaborate on what recording a “hate incident” meant.

It is not my purpose to defend Lord Sugar. His purported status as a “national treasure” has always seemed misplaced unless we, as a nation, treasure browbeating, belligerence and self-reverence. But it is absurd if more than a moment of police time is devoted to his silly tweet. His tweet undoubtedly relied on racial stereotyping. But it should not have taken a specialist team to conclude it fell short of hate crime – or at least hate crime as I understand the meaning of hate.

Sometimes the police are right to act. Cases of appalling harassment or threats – such as the recent abuse of prominent women – must be taken seriously. But we also appear to be heading for a world in which it is a police matter to give offence or merely to be an ass. It is, of course, easy to dismiss bigoted remarks as “only a joke” and when you are the butt of them, they really don’t seem that funny. But there must be a distinction between uncouth, unpleasant behaviour and a police-recorded “hate incident”.

A generous interpretation might be that the police are overcompensating after years of being insensitive to racism. One might also argue that firm action sets a new norm and ensures users regulate their behaviour. But most of us can think of an incident far more sinister than Lord Sugar’s tweet that we have reported to police, only to be told there is nothing they can do. More likely is that Twitter is simply an easy target.

New guidelines on prosecution have recently been issued, setting a higher bar for action and Lord Sugar, it should be noted, faces no criminal action. Twitter should not enjoy special immunity but should we really treat every mindless racist joke as a “hate incident”? Besides, public contempt is the best remedy for prejudice.

The phrase hate crime has always had an Orwellian ring to it; only an understated approach by police and prosecutors will ensure it does not become truly sinister.

robert.shrimsley@ft.com

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