critical mass media
So somebody posted a tweet making a joke threat to blow up Robin Hood Airport, the legal cogs turned and spat out a punishment for broadcasting a menacing statement, the result a huge outpouring of outrage. It is a situation which couldn't have happened even a couple of decades ago and probably shows that the legal system is ill equipped to deal with 21st Century communications technology.
But that is not the main point that struck me about this; what struck me is that not just the legal system is out of date but the whole way we, as people living together in society, filter our communication is outdated and unreliable now. Consider the same statement made in different circumstances.
The context would completely change the amount of menace we construed: if it was a friend or a taxi driver who said it or if it was a comedian as part of a show or if it was an intercepted radio transmission etc, etc. In just about every case there is a natural dampening process which takes even the most potent sounding threat and downgrades it: because it doesn't reach many people, because we expect fiction or (in the last case) because there would be a validation process on the interception before anybody in a position of authority would allow it to reach the public domain.
Our media has been fairly strictly delineated so that we know when we are being told news about real things going on or when we are getting entertainment. Through experience of the way people around us talk and act, we judge when they are really threatening and when they are just sounding off. Sometimes this breaks down clearly - no system this complicated is fool-proof - like the panic induced by Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast or the conman who we believe to be genuine. But the dampeners stopped most of these things before they reach a critical level and we put an enormous amount of faith in the calm voice of authority which reassures us that "everything is under control and there is no need to panic".
But now there are no recognisable boundaries between real news, social chatter and entertainment and there is no obvious authority to stop rumour, fear or anger from spiralling out of control. When something goes viral online it's so fast that the normal dampeners are way to slow to contain it. The old style news media is relegated to reporting the online reaction and effects. The danger is that real people are at the sharp end of these fireballs: somebody who said something which they might say every day in normal circumstances but didn't allow for the effect of putting it into the incendiary environment online. The speed of tranceiving pieces of information and the number of people doing it means there is an unstable critical mass at any time waiting for a catalyst to start the chain reaction.
So what is disquieting about the airport threat joke is not that somehow free speech has been denied by the law but more how easy it is to assume that when we are using these new forms of communication that the old rules apply.