Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Twitter, love it, loathe it, learn from it.

I have long been an advocate for owning one's own words online. I don't believe in anonymous comments and when I write a blog entry or send a 'tweet' I may only be expressing my opinions - but they are mine.

This morning I had a thought provoking experience using Twitter. I remarked on a New Zealand man who had been shot by the Armed Offenders Squad in a suburb of Auckland. Early reports said the man had moved menacingly towards police called to the scene with a meat cleaver. He refused calls to halt and lay down his weapon and was shot - apparently in accordance with police standard operating procedures.

Reports then began to filter through that the man was a widely known actor and that his action seemed to have been over distress about what the media broadly term 'a domestic incident'. Not an improbable scenario, especially when alcohol is also involved (not that I am certain it was in this matter).

The following day it became apparent that the man had made the call to the police in the first instance himself, giving his own description as a weapon wielding man - surely in the knowledge he would then be confronted by armed police. It has been speculated that he engineered a scenario that would result in his own death. But that is only speculation.

The man survived and is in hospital making a recovery.

Subsequent media reports have further speculated that the man's actions were a 'casebook' response to extreme stress by Maori men. This may be true, but it may not necesssarily apply to this case.

This morning the New Zealand Herald offered a bedside comment from the man's family who had little to say because they had not raised the shooting incident with him, given the trauma of his wound and need to recover.

On reading the reports I found myself forming the opinion that what the man had done was one of the silliest things I had heard. I commented on Twitter that calling himself to the attention of the police in the full knowledge they would respond with force should earn the fellow a nomination for a Darwin Award.

New Zealand is a small place and it dd not take long for friends of the man to react to my Twitter post. The replies were hostile and personal. My initial reaction was to take offence. But I have changed my view.

By commenting about the matter I was no better than the mainstream media. The facts of the case are yet to be fully disclosed. I am sure they will be in a court when, ideally the facts will emerge and he will be justly treated. The man's supporters remark on the mental illness he suffered. I don't want to be insensitive to people with mental illness. I do wonder where the man's friends were before the alleged illness erupted in an act that endangered the man, the police and innocent people in there homes and on the street, but that is another story and, once again I have no data.

When we comment publicly offering our opinions on serious matters that have yet to go before the courts we influence the outcome - some might say we are perverting the course of justice. The news media might argue that the public have a right to knowledge - and I would agree. But speculation and opining is not fact and the media are not the courts and neither is the 'court of public opinion'.

In such a small country as New Zealand I wonder how long before it is impossible to receive fairness or justice when every single person in the court has been exposed to information that will inevitably bias their opinions?

It has got the stage where vested interests lobby for their opinions to be heard; the Police Association do it - I saw their union representative protecting the reputation of his 'Member' after the shooting I have described - not his fault, he is traumatised. Voices 'diagnosing' the man I have been discussing as mentally ill (from a lay perspective - I assume no psychiatrist has had time to examine his state of mind), and so the meme spreads without due process for the facts to emerge without bias or spin.

It all should give us pause for thought. Which brings me full circle. My remark on Twitter about the man in question, whom I had never heard of before, was unkind and unfair. His friends were right to admonish me - I have pulled my head in. I apologise unreservedly for any hurt and or offence and promise in the future that I will pause to think before 'tweeting'.

1 comment:

  1. As one of the cyber-bullying friends of the shotee in question I thought I’d add my two cents, in more than 140 characters. I’m promoted to do so because @joegreenz (sorry but I’m unable to use real names anymore) took the time to think, reconsider and share this thought on the matter, which I appreciate. One of the pitfalls of the social media is that it’s way too easy to put ideas out there with no accountability.

    One small correction: Rob was not shot by the armed offenders but by one of the officers who first responded. The armed offenders didn’t have time to get there. If that officer had a tazer rather than a glock, we wouldn’t be having this debate, but that’s another subject altogether.

    I objected to @joegreenz’s comments and went on the offensive for my friend for one reason: we don’t know all the facts of this case yet and so we shouldn’t comment publically about them. As @joegreenz eloquently points out above, if we do, we run the risk of perverting the course of justice. We should only, in my opinion, be commenting about things we know as “fact.” The harsh reality is that @joegreenz may actually have been dead right - this may simply have been the stupidest thing Rob has done in his life. However, we don’t know that, and I doubt it very much. What I do know as absolute fact is that this is completely out of character for Rob. Also fact is that Rob is sensitive, intelligent, talented and grounded, meaning this is far more likely to be a desperate cry for help than a simple act of stupidity.

    One more small clarification: I am not aware of Rob suffering from any mental illness; I simply raised it as possibly a more plausible explanation than simple stupidity. Anyway, @joegreenz, thanks for reconsidering your comments and it will be very interesting to see how it all pans out. Thank god that no one was killed.

    I have to go now. The headmaster has called me to his office to discuss allegations of cyber-bullying. I’m pretty sure if I dob in @jamesc0leman I will get away with it. Sweet.