The CBC is wrong about Gregory Alan Elliott and the Twitter Trial

Gregory Alan Elliott
Gregory Alan Elliott

This is in written in response to the CBC’s assessment of the outcome of Elliott’s trial. As usual, they are supporting hysterical social justice warriors at the expense of one of our national treasures, our common sense.  Judge Brent Knazan has sent a clear message, but they insist that “there is no doubt that Stephanie Guthrie and Heather Reilly were harassed by Gregory Alan Elliott.” It’s yet another example of our national broadcaster falling into wishful thinking and forgetting to report the news. 

Sighs of relief will be heard across Canada this week. Gregory Alan Elliott, the Toronto man accused of criminal harassment on Twitter, was exonerated by Judge Brent Knazan in a trial that had much of the world watching.

At issue was the crown’s assertion that two women, Steph Guthrie and Heather Reilly, had a reasonable fear of Elliott, a man that in his lawyer’s words, engaged them in an ongoing and ‘ugly political debate.’ The case was important because it tested the limits of free speech. When it comes to the online world, when does heightened debate, and indeed hectoring, turn into an unlawful act?

As an Anglophone living in Montreal, the idea of a world within a world is one I experience daily. English-speaking households count for less than 10% of the population, making us a small town in a sea of French. That duality is nothing special: linguistic minorities exist everywhere. But how the experience is helpful is in understanding the differences between the online world and the real world. It’s as Elliott responded when asked about his social media ban: “It is so much healthier and nice to be out with real people…You can’t spend all your time online.”

The dangers of the Internet are well-known. For most of us, the problems we usually encounter are garden variety: dating sites with ‘enhanced profiles’, engineered comments threads, and advertisers who just won’t leave us alone. However, there’s also an area of the internet set aside for the depraved; the dark net is a place where pedophiles, terrorists and other unscrupulous sorts are free to roam.

Stephanie Guthrie
CI-GENDERGAMER10 Toronto feminist Stephanie Guthrie who spoke out against the ‘Beat up Anita Sarkeesian’ video as well as the creator behind it. Stephanie poses for a portrait while being photographed in Toronto on Tuesday July 10, 2012. Pawel Dwulit/Toronto Star

All of the action in this particular case took place on Twitter. It’s where odd-bedfellows abound and peaceniks and thugs sit cheek by jowl, separated only by a hashtag. For those of us following the trial, it was obvious that the real problem was one of proximity and loathing. Most of us understood that Guthrie and Reilly’s claims–that they feared Elliott–were exaggerated and indeed as unreasonable as Knazan finally ruled.

That’s because as sensible people we understand our online insulation depends on a few variables. Don’t want to see Aunt Betty on Facebook? Not a problem. Friend her but keep her off your newsfeed. Don’t want an ex to know you’re clocking him on Linkedin? Use the site’s incognito setting and he’ll never know.

But express an unpopular opinion, especially on a political website, and all of a sudden the world as you know it feels like it’s under siege.

That feeling, as abstract as it sounds, can be very real—especially to neophytes. That’s why most commenters, especially those who hold contentious opinions, hide behind pseudonyms. It’s one way to state an opinion and stay safe, but it’s also responsible for most of the non-advertising garbage littering the internet. In this sense the online world is still the wild west and Knazan’s verdict will likely shape the laws governing it. To that end, it was admirable that he spent so much time studying Twitter; it made for a lengthy verdict, but was solid in the sense that every possibility for abuse was investigated.

But why did so many Canadians find Steph Guthrie and Heather Reilly annoying? Our real life experiences probably have a lot to do with it.

Apart from teaching, I run a small business that depends on good reviews. Review sites form one bridge where the online and real worlds meet. They allow for an evaluation process that seems fair, but often isn’t. On a members-only forum–where small business owners congregate–a common complaint is that we must struggle to keep up, must struggle to maintain a pattern of positive feedback. Lately we’ve discussed creating our own site to critique customers, one similar to Airbnb’s where hosts can critique their guests.

It’s a plan borne of frustration. Spreading information helps consumers get better deals and better service, but the reality is that review sites are often abused. This means many business owners live in fear of bad publicity, some of which will certainly be unjustified. Given this has a discernible effect on real lives, it’s hard to feel sorry for the Steph Guthries and Heather Reillys of the world. However, I’m guessing they don’t understand this kind of suffering; I’m guessing they love their online lives a little too much and don’t mix with the hoi polloi.

Christie Blatchford
Christie Blatchford

In her analysis of the court case, Christie Blatchford said both Elliott and Guthrie seemed ‘intense’ and ‘evangelical’ when it came to Twitter. Blatchford is right that the word ‘evangelical’ applies to those on both sides; however, its transcendent meaning is especially accurate when it comes to Guthrie. Not only was she operating in a technical sphere removed from real life, she also appeared to be living in a reality of her own making, one far removed from the rest of us.

The tell was her egocentric world view, a view that allowed her to use her 8,500 Twitter followers to ‘sic the internet’ on a 24-year old young man she didn’t like, advising prospective employers not to hire him. That Guthrie could do this, and then call the authorities when her own security felt breached, tells us she is hopelessly insipid or has a limited capacity for understanding the suffering of others. Either way, her elitism is real, and when Elliott pointed to it, as he defended that 24-year old, he was right.

Her supporters will cry, “But he revealed her location!” This is in reference to the most contentious tweet Elliott made, one that said, ‘A whole lot of ugly at the Cadillac Lounge tonight,’ a location where Guthrie and her friends had planned to meet. My response is to again point to rating sites. not only has the power to damage hard-earned careers, it also tells the deeply disturbed where individual professors can be found. Given the prevalence of school shootings, surely the security threat to them is more pressing?

Twitter’s comparison to a public square is apt: anyone can turn up and read your tweets. Then they can shout you down, call you a jerk or mock you without mercy. How you respond is up to you. I tend to favour Jimmy Kimmel’s approach, the one where he has celebrities read insulting tweets aloud. If you were ever in doubt about the level of crazy that Twitter can reach, watching one of his videos will help you understand.

The fact is that Twitter is more amusing than dangerous, but that’s only obvious to those of us who approach it with a sense of humour. Taking it seriously is just too exhausting.




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