A ‘Twitter troll’ who targeted Madeline McCann’s parents in a lengthy series of tweets has been found dead, seemingly having been driven to suicide after receiving death threats and falling under close media scrutiny.
Using the Twitter handle ‘@sweepyface’ Brenda Leyland posted numerous tweets in condemnation of Gerry and Kate McCann, the most inflammatory of which appears to be the claim that the couple would ‘be hated by millions’ for the rest of their ‘miserable, evil conniving lives’.
Confronted directly by Sky News reporter Martin Brunt, Mrs Leyland was pressed for comment on her tweets after being informed that she and a number of other Twitter trolls were the subject of an on-going criminal investigation being conducted by Scotland Yard.
Whilst the Sky News broadcast never explicitly mentions Brenda Leyland’s name or address, she was speedily identified and was herself targeted by online trolls in a barrage of hateful tweets, many of which threatened her with severe bodily harm or even death. One tweet directed at Mrs Leyland read ‘Death is waiting and watching for u @sweepyface..Do you feel it????’ The ‘twitter hate’ quickly escalated and became extremely violent and aggressive.
Fearing media backlash, arrest and criminal charges following her encounter with the Sky News team, neighbors report that Mrs Leyland fled her home town of Burton Overy in considerable distress. She was found dead in a hotel near Leicester soon after and whilst police are not treating Mrs Leyland’s death as suspicious the case has reignited discussions surrounding both online abuse and the media’s obligation to pursue stories responsibly.
Speaking to the BBC on a program for Radio 4, Gerry McCann admitted that whilst the McCann family regularly receives abusive and threatening messages, they maintain no significant presence on social media and as such had been entirely unaware of the @sweepyface tweets until after the case rose to prominence following the Sky News broadcast featuring Mrs Leyland. Mr McCann did express his opinion that the laws governing online interaction needed to be more stringent, suggesting that an increase in the number of convictions for online abuse might be helpful in curbing the online troll epidemic. He noted that he and his family were happy that this particular facet of the criminal justice system was currently under review.
As the law currently stands, The Malicious Communications Act of 1988 makes it a criminal offence to ‘send an electronic communication in any form that is indecent or grossly offensive, or which conveys a threat, or which is false, provided there is an intent to cause distress or anxiety to the recipient.’
Since 2007, the number of convictions for online abuse has risen by 150% according to government statistics. 2011 saw the greatest number of arrests in response to online abuse on record with statistics showing that 1286 convictions were made in connection to the sending of offensive, indecent or menacing electronic messages.
Currently, those in violation of the Communications Act can be fined up to £5,000 and serve a 6 month prison sentence. However, as of this March, Justice Secretary Chris Grayling has begun actively campaigning to make amendments to the law, lobbying to increase the maximum prison sentence for guilty parties to 2 years.
Irrespective of the legality of her actions, some have questioned Sky New’s pursuit of the Brenda Leyland story, notably Lord Sugar who took to Twitter to register his displeasure at the media’s handling of the case. He tweeted ‘If she took her own life by pressure from media.there maybe a legal case against the media for incitement to commit suicide’.
A spokesperson for Sky News conveyed an official statement in the wake of Mrs Leyland’s death, intimating that Sky News were deeply saddened by the events which led to Mrs Leyland’s death but insisted that it would be ‘inappropriate to speculate or comment further.’
Whilst it remains to be seen whether promised changes to the Malicious Communications Act will be effective in combatting online trolls, it appears Sky News may have potentially compromised the privacy and personal safety on an individual who was already being investigated by the police in their pursuit of a compelling story.