Category Archives: Twitter

The only thing we know for certain is that we don’t know anything at all

jahar-hashtagIf there are any Wikipedia editors out there, I have a significant update for the John Wilkes Booth entry. I think he might have been innocent. Bear with me, I know I sound crazy. But I may have ‘proof’.

After the Twitter account of Boston Marathon bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev (or Jahar) was publicised last weekend, I noticed some disturbing tweets. On March 11, 2012, at precisely 8:21am, he simply tweeted: “time travel”. Then, almost a year later, on February 13, 2013, he dramatically tweeted: “I killed Abe Lincoln during my two hour nap” (where “nap” can be taken to mean “adventure through the wormhole”). This blatant admission of guilt has since been retweeted over 260 times by various people across the world, including Twitter user @TheSecular, who added “hmmm” to their manual retweet, with all the narrow-eyed suspicion of someone who’d just stumbled across evidence of a time-travelling presidential assassination.

It’s worth noting that Jahar hashtagged his tweet with #intensedream, which should give him a legal loophole to jump through should it ever go to trial. Still, it’s comforting to know that the super-sleuths of Twitter are on the case following the tragic scenes in Boston the other week, forensically analysing every tweet he’s ever written.

Another online sleuth, going by the name of @Mr_GreedGH, quoted two of Jahar’s tweets for the benefit of his 2,000+ followers, adding that they strongly hinted at the terror attack that was to come. One tweet, originally posted in late March, said: “Being bilingual is da bomb” (my emphasis), while another, posted in early February, said: “I’m in the New York state of mind”. With such breathtaking investigative flair, I certainly hope the likes of Kris Kross and Billy Joel have ironclad alibis as to their whereabouts on April 15th. Nothing gets past these online Columbos.

Out of pure nosiness, I spent most of last Saturday reading through Jahar’s timeline. When I started reading, his account had just over 82,000 followers (up from around the 300 mark). By the time I arrived at his very first tweet (a laundry-based update from October 2011) he had over 90,000. If you visit his timeline now and refresh your page every few minutes, his follower count steadily continues to rise – just over a week since his arrest in Watertown, Massachusetts.

Since the bombings, Jahar’s Twitter timeline has become a forum for argument, rumour, abuse, seductive conspiracy theories and even messages of support, solidarity and declarations of awkward romantic feelings from fangirls. Aside from the aforementioned Twitter sleuths poring over Jahar’s timeline for the ‘smoking gun’ tweet that doesn’t seem to exist (e.g. “I did bombingz lol”), it’s developed into a straight fight between the #freejahar movement – who believe he’s been framed by the US government – and those who want to see him fry for the terrorist atrocity he stands accused of committing.

Twitter is basically the digital equivalent of standing outside a courthouse hurling impassioned abuse at a suspect being whisked away beneath a gunmetal-grey, prison-issue blanket. But instead of attempting to land a satisfying blow on the side of the police van as it whizzes past – sending a metallic-sounding thump and barrage of vitriol reverberating around the suspect’s dark soul – all you have to do nowadays is click a ‘follow’ button, post a cathartic, 140-character tweet to the suspect’s timeline (in response to something he probably wrote months ago), then head to the kitchen for a sandwich.

Given that Jahar is unlikely to be keeping track of his Twitter mentions from his prison cell, people’s responses to his tweets are less about genuine attempts to communicate with him and more about playing to the gallery and informing their Twitter peers  – for the avoidance of doubt – that they despise terrorism.

For instance, in response to a photo Jahar tweeted of a sunset last December, one Twitter user bluntly responded: “You’re not artsy dude you’re a killer.” Had Twitter been around in the 1980s, it’s the kind of tweet one might have sent John Wayne Gacy in response to a Twitter timeline full of nightmare-inducing clown art. Of course, Gacy had already been tried, convicted and sent to Death Row to await execution by the time he discovered his creative side. In contrast, Jahar’s sunset photo was probably posted to Twitter with the same instinctive urge to share as someone presenting their Instagrammed chicken and pesto panini to the world. I doubt it was some kind of artistic statement – four months prior to the Boston bombings – which aimed to show that even aspiring terrorists can appreciate natural beauty. 

boston-fake-story

Interestingly, one day after the attacks, Jahar tweeted a response to @ImRealTed (a parody account of the Ted film character) in which he called out a heart-rending human story from the Boston Marathon as “fake”. The story, which had spread like wildfire around social media sites – unchecked, typically – told the story of a man who intended to propose to his girlfriend after she’d completed the marathon. But after hearing the two explosions, he rushed to the finish line to discover that she’d tragically been killed. The accompanying photo showed an anguished man tenderly cradling the head of a lifeless woman lying on a blood-spattered pavement. “This deserves endless retweets,” said @ImRealTed, as the story was shared with the account’s quarter of a million followers.

They got the retweets they asked for – over 1600 of them – but the story was fake, as Jahar rightly pointed out. The man in the photo was a perfect stranger to the injured woman on the ground (18-year-old high school student Sydney Corcoran, who hadn’t even been running in the marathon and notably didn’t die from her shrapnel injuries). The story was as fake as the one about the Sandy Hook pupil running the marathon for victims of last December’s school shooting. But that didn’t stop several Twitter users, apoplectic with rage over Jahar’s supposedly insensitive tweet, from responding. “Wow you fucking bomb people and then call out fake stories on victims stfu,” said 17-year-old Christina, who later added that “no one cares about the story being fake when a terrorist says it”.

Her uncompromising ‘guilty until proven guilty’ approach is almost as baffling as her apparent willingness to accept bullshit stories at face value (unless officially debunked – by a trusted, non-terrorist source, obviously).

jahar-collage

Jahar now has a twitter feed with enough retweets and favourites to rival Rob Delaney, with a growing base of support from people who genuinely believe he’s innocent – not to mention a growing army of smitten women. “I think I’m in love with a fake terrorist,” tweeted one ‘supporter’, with a split-screen photo of her smiling face next to Jahar’s. “It’s always the hot ones that turn out to be the messed up ones,” tweeted another. “Can we talk about how perfect his teeth are?” said one Tumblr post, beneath a photo of Jahar wearing a wing collar dress shirt and a beaming smile (with his arm around a girl whose face has since been scribbled from history). One girl even posted a handmade ‘Jahar’ photo-collage to Twitter. It’s like glimpsing what the world would be like if Match.com introduced a ‘Phwoar on Terror’ category for anyone wishing to meet extremist singletons.

Aside from the draw of his boyish good looks, Jahar’s Twitter account is actually quite ordinary. He chatted with friends, posted photos of his cat, tweeted song lyrics, enjoyed sharing random facts and watching Breaking Bad, slowed down for squirrels crossing the road and advised his friends on allergy products (“You need to get Claritin Clear,” Jahar advised @therealAbdul_…just over 24hrs after he’d allegedly killed three people and maimed hundreds more at the finish line of the Boston Marathon).

There’s no mention of “jihad” or “infidels” in his timeline, but you will find “Nemo” and “Dory”. (Unsurprisingly, this being the internet and everything, Jahar’s Finding Nemo­ tweet triggered an inexplicable and pointlessly macho etymological discussion about the term “Glasgow smile” and whether it was the correct term for the violent torture method that one Twitter user said he’d use on another. Several of the ‘conversations’ that Jahar’s tweets have spawned have the stagnant air of YouTube’s comments section about them.)

He even tweeted a few things that I wholeheartedly agree with, like calling MTV “garbage”. He also retweeted a link to a Media Matters article – with the words “just depressing” – about how the Kardashians get 40 times more news coverage than ocean acidification. It’s a strange feeling to find a modicum of common ground with a suspected terrorist.

But it’s this apparent ordinariness which has left people baffled as to how he could be involved in the grave events in Boston. A video of Jahar lightheartedly performing the robot during a wrestling training session (posted to YouTube by a friend, with the title ‘This was the Jahar I knew’) only adds to the confusion and sense of disbelief among his supporters. I guess it’s how we’d all feel if we suddenly found ourselves at the mercy of a mysterious bomber, only to later discover that Peter Crouch had transformed himself into the Ted Kaczynski of the English Premiership.

Perhaps the most notable and disturbing thing about the #FreeJahar movement online is how quickly it’s adopted a siege mentality. And due to the involvement of more than a few Beliebers and Directioners (who flock towards any cause that enables them to act as a hivemind) it already has the unsettling feel of a teenage cult. Many of his supporters are already spending their time defending the campaign against ‘haters‘, which is an infuriating label to hurl at anyone who objects to the plastic pop of One Direction and Justin Bieber, but completely inappropriate when used to deflect criticism from anyone genuinely unsure as to the innocence of an alleged terrorist.

In a frighteningly similar way to how Beliebers and Directioners believe they have a deep and very real emotional connection to their idols, which they assume is reciprocated, some of Jahar’s supporters have been tweeting as if he’s fully aware of their efforts. “I’m sure Jahar wants us to be strong, but if he hurts, I hurt. It’s hard to explain, but that’s the way it is for me,” tweeted the supporter behind the four-day-old ‘Supporting Jahar‘ account.

The emotions of his more impressionable supporters are also starting to be routinely targeted by what sounds like bite-sized fan fiction. Only yesterday, a rumour appeared from nowhere that “Dzhokhar cries when he wakes up and to stop the crying he goes back to sleep.” This nugget of information was attributed, in the vaguest sense imaginable, to “a nurse from the prison Jahar is in” (that being the Federal Medical Center, Devens). It surely won’t be long until someone tweets: “After our campaign secures his freedom, Jahar has said that he’s going to do the robot dance especially for us!” (source: A legal type dude working on his case and shit)

And in typical obsessive fan style, some supporters are even tweeting the usual “Let’s trend!” rallying cry – only to complain, when no such trend appears, that their efforts must have been actively blocked. Even though many supporters assert that they’re not conspiracy theorists – while at the same time posting and retweeting endless conspiracy theories about the Boston Marathon on various social media sites – their belief that even Twitter must be working against them says much about their naivety.

zubiYesterday, a Twitter account purporting to belong to Jahar’s mother appeared, which encouraged followers to make cash donations to help with Jahar’s legal defence. A photo of a woman claiming to be Zubeidat Tsarnaeva holding up a sign with routing numbers for a Russian bank account was the third tweet to be posted to the account (there’s also an accompanying YouTube video). Bizarrely the tweet prior to that was a message to Jahar himself, which asked him to follow her and then communicate only via direct message (“do not do a public Twitter,” she stressed). Even more bizarre is the fact that the @Tsarnaeva account appeared to have been created in July 2010, yet not a single character had been typed nor a tweet posted until yesterday afternoon.

Worryingly, the person behind the account claimed that they had received over $2,000 in just a few hours (after the appeal had been promoted by the ‘leader’ of the #FreeJahar campaign @TroyCrossley). Crossley later admitted that the account didn’t belong to Jahar’s mother, but assured everyone that the creator of the account was a supporter of the campaign nonetheless and the banking information was entirely accurate. So at least those 14-year-old online activists, with their supportive t-shirts and consciousness raising messages scribbled across their fresh faces, can now wire their mum and dad’s cash to Chechnya without feeling that something’s amiss.

(Well, they can’t anymore because the @Tsarnaeva account has since been deleted.)

The point of this long, rambling blog post is to stress that none of us really know anything, which is ironic given that we live in an ‘information age’. The people who believe that Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is guilty of carrying out the deadly terrorist attack in Boston are relying on information provided by a frequently unreliable mass media, not to mention law enforcement agencies who’ve been feeding the public a constantly mutating, and at times wholly contradictory, narrative.

The #FreeJahar movement, on the other hand, will continue to rely on Alex Jones’ Infowars and any number of armchair conspiracy theorists to pick at the threads of the official story, sharing among the hivemind any and all discrepancies that provides ‘proof’ of a False Flag terror attack, and thus, Jahar’s innocence. Meanwhile, the super-sleuths of Twitter will read and re-read Jahar’s achingly normal tweets through the murky hue of their terrorist filters. And supporters and detractors alike will continue to lock horns across the Internet, pretending they have all the answers.

The internet is awash with deceit, misleading and downright inaccurate information, endless repetition, argument and counter-argument, and more charlatans than you can shake a stick at. Although, from a slightly wider angle you can see that there are several other shady characters in the vicinity with stick-like implements…and if you look at the impossible directions of the shadows on the ground, it could be argued that I wasn’t stood there shaking a stick at a charlatan at all. The online aftermath of a terror attack is a confusing and depressing sensory overload. The only thing we know for certain is that we don’t really know anything at all.

(In the time it’s taken me to write this blog post, Jahar’s inactive Twitter account has gained over 20,500 followers.)

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Scare Tactics

I spent most of last weekend languishing on the sofa subjecting my weary brain to every single episode of the SyFy Channel’s Scare Tactics. If you’ve never seen it before, it’s a hidden camera show presented by 30 Rock’s Tracy Morgan (the show’s third presenter, following Shannon Doherty and Stephen Baldwin) in which people set up their friends and family to have the bejesus scared out of them.

The best way to describe it is to imagine how Beadle’s About might have looked if it had been devised by Dick Cheney.

Thankfully, it’s not a series that demands too much thought, so my weary brain just slumped inside my cranium for 12 hours, occasionally scratching its frontal lobes and sniggering every now and then.

Scare Tactics’ scenarios range from the patently absurd (assisting in the delivery of the Antichrist) to the faintly plausible (unknowingly delivering a briefcase full of narcotics to an FBI agent during a drugs sting). However, one thing’s for sure: the scenarios nearly always leave the mark (referred to as “the victim”) experiencing some level of buttock-trembling fear.

I’m ashamed to say that I laughed heartily at an episode in which a man feared he was about to be put through a wood chipper by a psychotic farm owner. So much colour drained out of his face, he must have been sweating his own complexion. But it’s usually that moment – when the victim is about to weepily collapse into the fetal position – that the actors ask them the question: “are you scared?”. When the perplexed victim confirms that they are indeed scared shitless, it’s then revealed that they’re the unwitting star on Scare Tactics.

Ha! You thought you were going to die! LOL!

You haven’t really been irradiated! ROFL!

I couldn’t help but think about Scare Tactics when I was reading Nick Cohen’s piece in the Observer yesterday about the Paul Chambers case, which I find truly terrifying. If it wasn’t so painfully true I’d suspect that the writers of Scare Tactics had cooked up the whole thing in a sweaty, windowless room.

I can see the treatment now…

When a man’s travel plans are disrupted due to adverse weather conditions, he tweets a joke to his followers on Twitter about blowing up a snowbound airport. He’s subsequently arrested and charged for his trouble, gaining a criminal record in the process and losing his job (then another job after that).

But I can also see the TV executive casting doubt on the plot…

“This guy’s never going to believe that you can get arrested and charged for THAT. It’s absurd. We need something more believable. Why don’t we turn his computer into something like Proteus from Demon Seed?”

You can find the full details of the Chambers case here. But in a nutshell, after the South Yorkshire Police arrested Paul Chambers at his workplace in January and questioned him on suspicion of communicating a bomb hoax under the 1977 Criminal Law Act, they passed the case to the Crown Prosecution Service.

Following this, the CPS – who realised that they didn’t have sufficient evidence for the bomb hoax offence – decided to prosecute him anyway. So they came up with section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, which makes it an offence for a person to send a “menacing” message over a public telecommunications network. Chambers was subsequently charged and prosecuted; the first Briton to be convicted of a criminal offence on Twitter.

Crazy.

All this got me thinking about some of things that I’ve said on social networks in the past couple of years, which could be construed as menacing or threatening language. For instance, I ‘jokily’ updated my Facebook status three times in 2008 with thoughts about how I might kill my unbearably noisy neighbours.

In the first status update, I ‘joked’ about the manner in which I would snuff them out (i.e. with a hammer). In the second, I explicitly said that I wanted to kill them. And in the third, I suggested that maybe blowing up their TV and radio was the way forward. I tweeted a similar thing about some noisy hotel guests during a weekend away with my girlfriend last year.

Now, anyone who knows me well should know that, not only would I not say boo to a goose (I wouldn’t even like to inadvertently startle one if my phone went off as I walked by), but I’m also not in the murdering business. If anything, the status updates and tweets I’ve mentioned expose me as being rather dull and repetitive. They were simply a product of my intense frustration at people’s inconsiderateness. Only a moron would’ve thought: “maybe I’d better call the police and get them to search Andy’s flat for a claw hammer caked in blood-matted hair and skull fragments”.

But even if the police had been informed about my status updates, I assume they would’ve been able to tell the difference between something written on a social network in a moment of frustration (perhaps in bad taste, admittedly) and a genuine murderous threat from a cold-bloodied sociopath.

Well, I used to believe that. But since the Paul Chambers case I’m not so sure. Common sense no longer seems to prevail.

Chambers will be appealing his conviction under section 127 of the Communications Act 2003 at Doncaster Crown Court this Friday. The appeal is due to begin at around 10am, at which time, David Allen Green (formerly @jackofkent) has suggested that we should all RT the following line from Betjeman’s ‘Slough’:

“Come friendly bombs and fall on Slough! It isn’t fit for humans now.”

According to Green, there’s no difference in law between Paul Chambers’ original tweet and quoting Betjeman. So in support of both Chambers and free speech, I’ll be making damn sure it’s in my Twitter timeline on Friday morning. I hope you will too.

Am I scared right now? Well if this is what can happen to you for tweeting something thoughtless but ultimately innocent, then, yes, I’m terrified.

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I can’t even show solidarity without worrying about what people think

At about 3am yesterday morning I was preparing to shut down my laptop, but thought I’d check Twitter one last time. As I did so, I noticed that a couple of people I follow had altered their avatars to display with a green overlay. They looked as if they’d been physically removed from the screen and had their pixels dipped in some kind of luminous toxic waste fondue. So with my curiosity aroused, I sifted through my friend’s timeline to look for an explanation.Is This OK 2

I discovered that the green overlay was a way of showing solidarity with the Iranians currently protesting the outcome of their country’s election. In fact, inattentive as I am, flashes of green have apparently been appearing on blogs, websites and social networks all week, with people across the world eager to visually acknowledge the Iranians’ struggle. So, in an effort to show my support I turned my avatar green (it was like looking at myself through the night-vision sight of a sniper rifle).

When I turned my avatar green, I did so in the hope that vast swathes of the Twitter community would also turn a greenish hue. Sure, it would be little more than a symbolic act, but it would represent a powerful statement nonetheless.

However, by the time I’d woken from my slumber later in the morning, there wasn’t quite the sea of green I’d been anticipating. People either hadn’t bothered to change the colour of their avatar or were openly questioning the usefulness of doing so. Graham Linehan (@Glinner) tweeted:

Glinner TweetSome people replied that the colour green had transcended one particular party and now represented an entire movement (and democracy), which is how I see it. However, with thanks to those who had replied to him, Linehan later tweeted that he would only change his avatar “if it seems like the right thing to do”.

For some reason, Graham Linehan deciding not to change his avatar made me question whether my ‘going green’ had been something of a rash decision. Furthermore, I had a creeping sense of discomfort that my green-hued avatar singled me out from all the other kids. That shouldn’t really have made any difference. But annoyingly, it did.

It reminded me of the time when I moved to a new school (slightly rougher than I was used to) and my grandparents, with the best intentions, bought me a sports bag that I’d really wanted. Well, actually, I’d wanted a grey-coloured bag with ‘Sport pour Homme’ written on the side, but instead they bought me the pink and grey bag with ‘Sport pour la Femme’ emblazoned across it.

I kept that bag hidden and buried beneath plastic bags at school for a whole year, so as not to get beaten to death by my classmates wielding tennis balls inside football socks  (the junior version of a snooker ball inside a sock). I didn’t want to be different (with my feminine bag), I wanted to fit in and show everyone what a good footballer I was, and not have my year overshadowed by schoolyard whispers that I was gay…and possibly French.

Anyway, I digress…

I hated the fact that I was starting to get twitchy about my decision to go green with my avatar, and I was positively appalled with myself for becoming so ensconced in the celebrity-saturated world of Twitter that I needed a celebrity endorsement to feel confident about making a simple statement of solidarity. But it seems I did. 

Neither Jon Ronson, Charlie Brooker, Peter Serafinowicz, Richard Herring, Armando Iannucci, Jonathan Ross, or arch Twitterer Stephen Fry – champion of a vast number of Twitter causes and fads that pass through his busy fingers on a daily basis – had bothered to partake in the greening of their avatars. I don’t think any less of them for not doing it. I’m just disappointed with myself for feeling that I needed them to endorse it at all.    

Still, the niggling worry that I’d jumped on a bandwagon that none of the cool kids had bothered to touch was further compounded when my friend @editorialgirl (who scoffs at the fact that I call her inspirational) decided to remove the green hue from her avatar. This occurred after a tweet from someone who suggested that, rather than everyone changing the colour of their avatars, it might be better to support democracy in Iran by making a donation to Amnesty International.

Donating to AI is, of course, a fantastic thing to do. After all, Amnesty do some phenomenal work. But the tweet somewhat belittled those of us who had innocently tried to show solidarity with the green avatar. There’s always someone who bloody knows better!  

I was quite surprised that that tweet wasn’t followed by someone else, saying: “What good is a few measly quid to Amnesty? A more effective contribution would be to take an accelerated learning language course in Farsi. You could then fly over to Tehran and stand shoulder to shoulder with ordinary Iranians, while getting beaten around the head by baton-wielding anti-riot police, whizzing past you on motorbikes as if competing in some hideously violent episode of Kick Start. Don’t just sit on your arse and play around with colours!”

With @editorialgirl returning her avatar to its normal colour (with a promise to donate to Amnesty instead), I started to waver. In fact, I experienced a ridiculous double whammy of self-doubt and self-consciousness, which collided like subatomic particles to create the following tweet:andytoots avatar wobble

I do somewhat regret being so worried about what people think of me, that I managed to equate my displaying a colour that represents both struggle and hope…with shitting myself in fancy dress costume at a black tie event. Still, it clearly underlined a substantial character flaw: I’m too preoccupied with how others see me. I care about what people think of me, because I want to be liked and respected…and right. And the fact that one of my most trusted friends had abandoned the green avatar – and some of my favourite celebrities hadn’t even bothered in the first place – made me think that I was perhaps wrong.

But why did I think that? Am I so bereft of self-determination that I’m unable to make my own decisions and stick to them? Why should I care what the crowd are doing? And why should I care about what they may or may not be thinking about what I’m doing? So, you see, this post isn’t really anything to do with the green avatar. It’s about what I learned (or, at the very least, confirmed) about my character, which is that I’m lacking in confidence and care far too much about what people think.

The good news, however, is that I overcame my ridiculous doubts, quashed my follow-the-crowd mentality, and decided to stick with the green avatar. Not only that, but I also changed my location and time-zone settings on Twitter, as per instruction number four in the Cyberwar guide for Iran elections. And I also wrote a letter (via Amnesty) to Mr Rasoul Movahedian, the Iranian ambassador in the UK, calling for restraint in the way forthcoming demonstrations in Iran are policed. This was a way of putting some flesh on the bones of my gesture of solidarity.

I’ve since changed my Twitter avatar, but not as a result of any lingering self-doubt about whether it was the right thing to do. To the contrary, I’ve now replaced it with the picture that accompanies this blog post, which I feel more accurately represents my efforts at expressing my solidarity with the Iranians. It depicts me as an immaculately turned out activist wearing the green adopted by Iranian election protestors (very important). But it also shows me as a man constantly seeking approval and reassurance from his peers. Pathetic, really. But given yesterday’s performance, apparently true.

Anyway, I shall begin ironing out these character flaws immediately…if that’s OK? I mean, I don’t really know? Whaddya think?

UPDATE: I logged onto Twitter this morning and saw that Jonathan Ross (@Wossy) has since ‘gone green’ on his avatar. And thanks to @PeteRayUK, Graham Linehan’s Twitter avatar is now displaying a subtle change: he’s wearing a green jacket instead of a brown one! I also forgot to mention that Alexander Armstrong (@Xanneroo) was the only celebrity (in my follow list) that had already gone green by yesterday afternoon. I wish they’d give him the Have I Got News For You gig full-time. He’s such a nice bloke!

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