As a small community in Wales grieves for a five-year-old girl abducted while playing in front of her house, and British mothers cry for their sons lost in Afghanistan, the rest of the UK is learning that legal steps will be taken against those who use social media for gross commentary.
Five-year old April Jones was abducted from in front of her house while she was playing with her friends on October 1. The last time she was seen was by a friend getting into a car that drove off with the child. April’s body has not been found.
Meanwhile, 19 year old Matthew Woods thought it would be funny to post grotesque jokes about the five year old – some of them of a sexual nature – and the circumstances of her disappearance on Facebook. While angry locals mobbed his home, Woods was taken away by the police, and brought before court on charges of sending grossly offensive messages via a public electronic communications network.
Pleading guilty, Woods was sentenced to 12 weeks in prison. He was seen smirking on hearing the judgment, and jeering at onlookers who celebrated the sentence.
Also on Facebook, a group entitled “Mark Bridger – Guilty or Not Guilty- Have Your Say” sprung up, and reportedly saw individuals post accusations and insulting comments aimed at April’s family. Calls were levelled to have the group taken down – which appears to have happened.
In a trend displaying a clamp-down on the misuse of social media, 20 year of Azhar Ahmed also received a community service sentence and fine, again – for sending grossly offensive messages via an electronic communications network, having posted comments about British soldiers killed in Afghanistan on Facebook.
While arguments are rife as to whether or not this form of criminal charge is actually a curtailment of freedom of speech, what is perhaps equally interesting is what these cases show about the impact of social media on community morals. Has social media effectively ended the concept of community?
In the case of Woods, would he have walked up to the grieving family of April Jones and personally told them sexual jokes about their missing five-year old? Insults about ginger-haired children? The “joys” of waking up in the back of a van with abused children? The answer is a resounding no.
Would Ahmed approach the grieving mothers of the soldiers recently killed, and tell them that he wishes upon their sons a horrendous afterlife in hell? Unlikely.
What is interesting about these cases is the extent to which the use of social media erodes the morals of these young people, and allows for the most horrible comments to be flung around in the public domain.
In the non-electronic world, a sense of community prevails and people feel empathy for those struggling and grieving – as has been shown in the UK by the massive turn-out of volunteers hunting for the lost girl on a daily basis -, sad people may have nasty thoughts but few would actually publically expound their ideas.
In the world of social media, community spirit is dead, self-censorship gone, and even the most disturbed of people happily declare their darkest and most disgusting thoughts to the world at large. Maybe then, new criminal charges are necessary – not to impinge on the right of speech, but to fight against the loss of morals, the loss of empathy, and the emerging prevalence of disturbed minds causing further suffering through their public spouting of grotesque commentary.