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Human cost of a trial by Twitter era



Original Source: Leicester Mercury Tuesday 07 October 2014

By Leicester Mercury  |  Posted: October 07, 2014


Let's get things straight. The death of Brenda Leyland in a hotel room in Leicester is a tragedy in every sense of the word. A needless, avoidable tragedy which has shocked and disturbed in equal measure.


How the 63-year-old died is at this stage a matter of conjecture. What is certain is that she died alone, 10 miles from home, amid the kind of furore that normally surrounds the hunt for a wanted fugitive.


In Brenda Leyland's case, her "crime" was taking to social media to post some fairly harsh and uncharitable words about Gerry and Kate McCann, parents of missing Madeleine.


When her alleged role in a sustained abuse campaign against the McCanns was exposed and the woman who called herself "Sweepyface" on Twitter was confronted by a Sky TV newsman, the public backlash was immense.


Two days after her unmasking on television, Brenda Leyland was dead.


What this whole sorry story does is spark fresh debate over cyber abuse, particularly trials by Twitter, and what sort of punishment online bullies deserve.


In a world of online anonymity, has public identification and the naming and shaming of culprits become the greatest deterrent of all?


The grand jury of the internet operates with few of the decencies afforded to people elsewhere. There's a familiarity to online conversation which encourages strangers to publish random thoughts and observations they would never dream of otherwise repeating.


In an ironic twist, Brenda Leyland is in some quarters now a victim of the same vitriol she is accused of aiming at the McCanns through her "Sweepyface" account. On many platforms, she is vilified for her posts about Kate and Gerry.


A coroner's inquiry and police investigation will establish what went on in the final hours of her life. Until then, anything else is speculation.


But for the rest of us, the inquest needs to be about social media and how a middle-class 63-year-old like Brenda Leyland allowed herself to be dragged into the depressing world of trial-by-Twitter. Her death is a lesson to us all.


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