This is an account of another silly, throw-away remark made on Twitter that had unintended negative consequences. This seems to be happening more and more as the medium matures. Perhaps the most famous example is the case of Paul Chambers, who was arrested in January and convicted in May of sending a menacing electronic communication, which was nothing more than a joke suggesting an airport bombing. This is the case that moulded me into a free speech fundamentalist and all around civil libertarian.
The latest example to illustrate how Twitter (it seems to be this medium more than any other) is so misunderstood by both its writers and its readers involves Dragon's Den star and self-made multi-millionaire entrepreneur Duncan Bannatyne and a young woman who made a silly joke.
Sharon Gooner (
I think that's her real name this is not her real surname) never expected that she would become the focus of Duncan Bannatyne's ire when she tweeted the following:
Duncan Bannatyne's wife is having an affair. He
bellowed at reporters: "You may take my wife but YOU'LL NEVER TAKE MY MEADEN"
Those who know of the Dragon's Den will be aware that Deborah Meaden is Bannatyne's co-star and fellow tycoon. Those over the age of 20 should also immediately see that this is a pun referencing a famous line from the film Braveheart. A funny joke? That's a matter of opinion. A bad pun? Also a matter of opinion. A put on? Yes, that's perfectly clear. The literal implication is that Bannatyne is simultaneously having an affair with his co-star, but the pun aspect makes it is clear this is delivered as the punchline of a joke. That she did not anticipate how this would be received (even that this would be received) is I think not in dispute. So what happened?
Somehow Duncan Bannatyne got wind of this tweet and he challenged its author, saying "Just so you know. If anyone believes your silly tweet & if it hurts my family I will sue you for as much as I can". This was the first communication from Bannatyne to Gooner. It's not clear whether he was searching for his own name or whether he happened to see a retweet; however, we know he did not receive the tweet directly as he was not a follower of Sharon Gooner and the tweet did not mention his twitter handle. It seems like a very strong initial response, a not very subtle threat of litigation. Further correspondence reveals that Bannatyne's primary concern was that people might believe the first sentence, the setup to the pun. This could have the effect of damaging his wife's reputation and subjecting his young son to needless abuse and torment. Well, I have to say that seems reasonable. Threatening to sue was a massive overreaction though. That was not reasonable, but I suppose he was upset and on the defensive for his family.
I have gone through phases when considering this incident. At first I jumped on the Duncan-bashing bandwagon. He's a bully. He doesn't understand Twitter. People are abusing Gooner, calling her "scum" and "attention seeking". This is like Cat-Bin-Lady outrage. I thought the joke sounded like the sort of thing Jay Leno might crack in a Tonight Show monologue. Perfectly acceptable. Twitter lets anybody be Jay Leno for 15 minutes. Then I began to see that Bannatyne had a point (though his abusive supporters did not). The context of the joke did not seem to make clear that the setup was a false statement. Why would Jay Leno crack a joke like that unless the first statement was true? In that scenario there would be some sort of current event that is then tied to an absurdity, which is the punchline. I consulted with a friend who is a linguistics expert and previously gave an insightful analysis of the #TwitterJokeTrial tweet. He agreed with me. The first statement sounds as though it is a truthful observation. Some other people I spoke to also admitted that they had assumed the first statement was grounded in truth. I didn't think Sharon's tweet amounted to libel, but I thought it was poorly executed and easily misinterpreted. This would not have been her fault as she did not expect any part of her tweet to be taken literally. However, I could see the potential for damage.
Then later in the evening Sharon began to repost some of her earlier punning efforts. I then became aware that there was an extended context that I hadn't previously seen. Here are some examples:
Sade has given up music to open an organic fruit drink bar in town. She is a Smoothy Operator.
Julie & Cal next door have split up. But he did break her white appliances a lot. At least her washing machine will live longer with Cal gone
A man got stuck up a ladder today by a crate of deodrant that refused to budge. Sure. It won't let you down.
A ferry company were so impressed with Lionel Ritchie's new advert they offered him a job. He is now dancing on the Sealink.
My mate tried to steal some of my treasured music magazines. Keep your friends close, but keep your NME's closer.
In each of these examples we clearly see that the setup to the pun is as much a put on as the pun itself. In the wider context of this string of punning, it becomes clearer that the reader is meant to dismiss the remark about Duncan Bannatyne's wife. This fascinates me, because I'd assumed I had the full context previously where I now know that I did not. These things are not always as simple as they seem. This makes me wonder whether Paul Chambers' tweet really could have appeared menacing to some reasonable person, though he clearly did not intend for it to be. How much responsibility should we assign to people who make remarks that are taken out of context? Do we all in fact need to be much more careful about what we say in a public medium with enormous potential for the masking of context? I just don't know. Let me think about it some more...