Social networking has produced a “a class of people empowered by their anonymity”.

“I used to laugh at the phrase ‘keyboard warriors’ – people full of bravery behind the keyboard but oddly silent when confronted on their views.” Fachiema Menjoh discusses the tragedy of Brenda Leyland and the internet warriors of today.

Reading about the case of Brenda Leyland this week and her subsequent suicide, as a result of being confronted by Sky News over abusive messages written about the McCann family, has for me, raised more questions than answers. However, one thing the case has cruelly re-enforced is that what we say on the internet matters. Far from the Internet being a lawless, ungovernable space, in many ways it is but an extension of ‘real life’. Like real life, there are rules and regulations and you can (and will) be held accountable for what you say and do. The question that the Leyland case brings up however, is what is the most suitable way to hold those accused of ‘trolling’ accountable in a free and democratic society?

The 2003 Communications Act and the 1988 Malicious Communications Act can be used to imprison or fine people for sending messages or communications which are threatening, indecent, grossly-offensive, obscene, menacing or which contain false information with the intention of causing distress or anxiety. However in Breda Leyland’s case, her opportunity to explain herself came not before a court or in a police interview room but on Sky News. When confronted, she said that she was “entitled to” her views. Was Sky News then, as a public broadcaster, entitled to confront her on those views, even if it involved doing so in front of her home?

In regards to the first question, I would begrudgingly have to grant Ms Leyland her right to express her views on the case. However, as mentioned before, it is important to remember that what we say matters. The case highlights the growing trend amongst many people, to challenge the predominant media narrative. The fact that Brenda Leyland felt free to accuse the McCanns of being “evil” “conniving” people, even though they have been cleared of any involvement in their child’s disappearance, is disconcerting. However, many people like Leyland exist, whether the topic at hand is the McCanns or any other news story. What do you say to such people, convinced that something sinister is at play? That they’re wrong and should keep their opinions to themselves? You cannot censor what you do not want to hear – you can only hope that the evidence speaks loud enough, so that your opponent takes the time to listen.

In regards to Sky News, yes, they were entitled to confront Ms Leyland, but the way in which they chose to do so, picking one person out of a dossier of dozens (not even the most vitriolic of the group), is unfair. They weren’t to know that as a result of the story and the negative attention that Brenda received that she would end her life. Indeed no-one truly knows why she ended her life. However as a responsible broadcaster with clear guidelines to follow, door-stopping someone in front of their house with their face in full view is reckless. Especially since they thought not to use her real name and instead address her by her Twitter name. They could have protected her identity let her write a statement explaining herself and then release it or leave the police to their job and investigate the tweets without picking out random individuals.

Brenda Leyland. R.I.P

I used to laugh at the phrase ‘keyboard warriors’ – people full of bravery behind the keyboard but oddly silent when confronted on their views. However, this phrase is more true-to-life than we give it credit for. The creation of social networking sites, with their ability to make you ‘anonymous’ have produced a class of people empowered by their anonymity. People who dare not to say what they really mean in public, for fear of being seen as stupid, dangerous, or just strange. The fact that Leyland did not ‘@’ the McCann’s, (as they are not on Twitter) is neither here nor there. It does not minimise the hurt and discomfort that hearing such sentiments would have caused them. Equally, however, the fact that Brenda Leyland said these things does not make her a monster deserving of death and trial-by-TV. If this case should leave any lasting lessons it should be that words matter, their effect on people matter and we should always keep this in mind.

The McCanns despite this incident, are still left without their daughter and now, because of this incident, Brenda Leyland’s son Ben, is left without a mother.


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