In the news - Twitter racism row
Speculation over the presence of racism in football is rarely out of the news, but recent times have seen it once again spilling over into the online world with big names in the sport reacting to alleged racist abuse on Twitter.
In just the past week, Manchester City defender Micah Richards appeared to have closed his Twitter account - reportedly following racial abuse from a number of people online, and on Tuesday 21-year-old student Joshua Cryer appeared before magistrates to face charges of sending 'grossly offensive' messages to pundit and former England striker, Stan Collymore - a charge he denies.
But why would people follow celebrities on Twitter only to insult them? Perhaps it's not as clear-cut as saying someone is simply racist, but the point may be – for those who think of social media as a popularity contest – just one of the many ways of offending the famous in order to get a reaction. In a sea of hundreds of thousands or even millions of online fans, it's easy to feel anonymous and for members wanting online attention they might think an abusive tweet will garner more interest than a friendly message.
The sense of anonymity on Twitter also exposes a lot about the collective habits of its users. There are several Twitter accounts that offer 'racist humour', racking up hundreds of thousands of followers with the aim of making offensive topics funny. Does the banner of comedy mean they're harmless or do they actually enforce stereotypes that a 21st century society should be doing its best to move away from?
With a 140-character limit, some might think it advisable not to discuss more sensitive issues at all in such a medium, where brevity severely hampers nuance. Diane Abbott last month found herself at the centre of a race row following her tweet, 'white people love to play "divide & rule"'. Despite claiming the message was taken out of context, she still received stern words from her boss Labour leader Ed Milliband, who deemed her comments 'unacceptable'.
It's up to individuals to report matters of offence to police, as Twitter doesn't remove what it calls 'potentially offensive content'. In its help section it states that 'If there is something that you don't agree with, or find insulting, it's best not to look at it all', and recommends blocking users who post such things.
The allegations against Joshua Cryer are another reminder that what you write online can lead you straight to a magistrate. Although it might be understandable that Twitter wouldn't want to get involved in the millions of tweets that users may find offensive, the issue of how to tackle racism online may still need addressing. Should users ignore it, report it, or should websites be doing more to stamp it out?
If you want to find out more about cyberbullying the effects it can have, and how to deal with it, check out WebWise's coverage of Share Take Care.
Hajar is a regular contributor to the WebWise blog and has also made award-winning programmes for BBC Radio. In her spare time she loves reading, writing and singing.