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Facebook “Event” Results In Four Year Jail Sentence

Social Media seems to have been at the forefront of all arguments and points of view since the riots in London. Whether it be about how it’s unjust for the government to censor social media in times of civil unrest, or if social media was to blame for encouraging some of the riots and looting, networks like Facebook and Twitter are a popular talking point.

Today it was revealed that two young men from England have been sentenced to a very high and tough prison stay of fours years each behind bars. And why? Because they had set up Facebook events inciting riots and looting in their home towns.

Jordan Blackshaw, 20, had set himself up an event page on the social network called, “Smash Down in Northwich Town” for August 8th. Police had been monitoring social media for any events or situations just like this and so arrived at the meeting place listed on Facebook at the said time and day. When they got there, they found out they were the only ones, no one at all had shown up to partake in the riots or looting. Despite the fact that no one had turned up and Blackshaw had argued it was never meant to be taken seriously, he was promptly arrested and made to stand in front of a judge.

Judge Elgan Edwards QC said of Blackshaws actions,

This happened at a time when collective insanity gripped the nation. Your conduct was quite disgraceful and the title of the message you posted on Facebook chills the blood. You sought to take advantage of crime elsewhere and transpose it to the peaceful streets of Northwich. No one actually turned up due to the prompt and efficient actions of police in using modern policing”.-Courtesy of The Guardian Online

Now, whether it was the prompt police actions, or just that no one took any notice of this Facebook event, a four year prison sentence seems a little harsh. It’s understandable that the law and authorities should be seen to take action against these people seeing as, for all intense and purposes, they did incite, suggest and encourage unlawful behaviour, but maybe community service, an official note on his record or even a suspended shorter sentence would have been more reasonable? Afterall, nothing actually came of the Facebook event itself.

This is not the only story of Facebook and social media landing users in trouble over these riots. Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan, 22 also suffered at the hands of the law becuase of his conduct on newtorks. He fashioned himself a Facebook page entitled, “The Warrington Riots”. The thing is, he woke up the morning after he set up this page and deleted it on his own accord. He was still aressted and taken to court. The judge argued that he had caused,

very real panic [and] put a very considerable strain on police resources in Warrington”.

This may be so, threats of violence do naturally cause tension and unrest in villages, but again, the page was removed and no riots were ever started as a result of this lapse in social responsibility and judgement.

This is the first real time that social media has been used as an accessory to unlawful behaviour on such as mass scale in the UK. Of course, there are small one on one times when unlawful behaviour has taken place but the riots and unrest made it easy for people to get involved and Facebook and social media was a great way of taking part. The key question in these sort of cases, is whether or not social media really is “free speech” or whether people who lack a sever sense of judgement, which unarguably these two men did, should be punished for what they write on there. Their actions did cause a level of uncertainty and panic in their locations, yet nothing amounted from the pages and no harm or damage was caused. The pages were even removed, one of which only hours after being set up.

Social media should come with a sense of morals and certainly with a sense of responsibility. Yes, these two young men made a horrible misjudgement in their online activity but to be behind bars for four years for something that never amounted to anything is too harsh. The punishment does not fit the crime and it’s certainly not proportional.

Be careful when you set up pages, groups and events or even updates which could cause controversy, you never know who in the legal world is reading them and what will happen if you get caught.



~Articles mentioned in this blog: http://www.guardian.co.uk/uk/2011/aug/16/facebook-riot-calls-men-jailed

~Image: http://www.flickr.com/photos/vectorportal

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I'm Nikki. I guest post on various blogs and websites about all things social media, technology and marketing.
  • http://twitter.com/TammyKFennell Tammy Kahn Fennell

    This is absolute insanity. Facebook is often a place to imagine, it can almost be viewed as your own personal journal.  Granted, these guys were moronic, and chances are if people DID show up they’d only be too pleased to loot and steal, but no crime was actually committed. I’d like to know more about what this group said.. Did it specifically say “The purpose of this group is to promote rioting and looting?” Otherwise, I’d say it’s far too ambiguous. It could have been a joke… 

    That judge is on some kind of power trip.

    LOL @ “The Warrington police were strained.  I’ve had the unfortunate opportunity to visit that boring place – probably gave them something to do.

  • http://twitter.com/digitaliprod Digital I

    We have different statutes here in the states, but there have been incidents of supposed social media created “flash mobs” engaging in criminal actions. It is my understanding that these are not so much a “general broadcast” but targeted to specific lists of followers, etc. If this is the case, it falls within the parameters of certain racketeering and conspiracy regulations, rather than our more general “free speech” laws. 

    In terms of the “free speech” argument, in the US you do have the right to be a complete idiot in public. You can also be a racist, bigot, misogynist, atheist, or otherwise ascribe to the ideals of a particular unpopular group or party, provided that you 1) do not incite to riot, or 2) act in a careless or negligent fashion with regard to the public good. (These are rough restatements of the Supreme Court’s determination of First Amendment protection of “free speech”.)

    These two “tests” as applied to these cases would tend to support the idea that these men were not protected by free speech laws. Both might argue that these were “jokes” and that since no one responded to them there was hardly “incite to riot”. However, the idea that a reasonable person (i.e. the “average” person) would see that during a riot such acts might be likely to cause harm or disruption clearly fails the second test. Ergo, this is not protected speech. 

    The latter case is almost always exemplified with “yelling FIRE! in a crowded theater”. You do have the right to be an idiot, but if your poor judgment could reasonably have been seen to constitute a threat to public safety, you don’t get protected from the consequences. 

    Personally, I think the four year sentence is egregious. While I would agree the irresponsibility of the actions require some punishment, including I would hope a fine as well as community service during the clean-up, four years is extreme considering there was no direct damage done.

    The authorities are looking for a scapegoat, and are happy to slam the guy who was stupid enough to go online and post about it. I hope whoever represents him on appeal asks the question as to whether or not it was the best use of police resources at the time to be lurking around Facebook while the town was burning.