The need for due diligence on Twitter to avoid getting involved with people who you might not want to if you knew who they really were

Earlier this month (August 2017), a row erupted on my Twitter timeline of the like I have not previously witnessed amongst what might loosely be called the ‘prison reform community’, comprised of former prisoners, family members of currently serving and former prisoners, prison lawyers, students and academics. It wasn’t the usual handbags at dawn kind of spat that frequently occur on Twitter. This was of a different order, culminating in Alex Cavendish, who went by the handle @PrisonUK, deleting his account altogether and retreating into obscurity.

Over the last two or three years, Alex Cavendish had become a prominent source of information on prison matters, you might say the go-to “twit” on all things prisons. He had upwards of 10K followers, which is huge in this area, with influencing marketing platform Klear deeming him the ‘Top 7% Twitter Influencer in the Prisons community.’

Alex, supplemented his Twitter activity with a very informative prison blog, which has not been deleted, and had also written a series of interesting and insightful articles for The Metro on prison issues, covering such things as votes for prisoners, prison letters, prison riots and rape and sexual assault in prison.

Things came abruptly to a head for Alex, however, when he was outed as a convicted child sex offender whose real name is Mark Standish. The revelation had a polarising effect, with competing perspectives available here and here.

Critics of Standish, the most vocal of which are themselves former prisoners, were adamant that it was not the fact that he was a convicted offender or even sex offender that was the problem. Rather, using a pseudonym was felt to be a deceit, amongst other things, that when discovered raised questions about the veracity of the information that he disseminated.

His refusal to engage or answer questions from his followers when his real identity was exposed and to delete his account entirely, making verification now impossible, only seemed to compound matters for critics by increasing suspicions and feelings of betrayal of trust.

This highlights the need for due diligence on Twitter (and other social media for that matter) to avoid getting involved with (or hurt by) people who you might not want to if you knew who they really were.

Due diligence was not possible with Alex Cavendish because it was not his real name. If you did search his name, which I did, you went round in circles from his Twitter account to his blog to his Metro articles and back again – everything seemed to validate each other but there was no external validation at all.

So, real names are vital so that you can do due diligence and make an informed choice about who you are getting involved with, promoting their agenda, liking their tweets, possibly making friendships and sharing personal information via direct messages, and so forth.

I am uncertain of the law in this area so will not provide the name of the person in this next example, which is the principal motivation for this blog post.

I was recently contacted by a (then) Twitter follower with an invite to contribute to a project that he was involved with.

In terms of due diligence, I looked up the website of the project and saw someone who I recognised and whose work I respect was involved with it so I agreed to meet him at a café across from my office to learn more about it and the part, if any, that I might play.

On my way to meet him, however, I realised that I didn’t know his name – he has a Twitter account in the name of the project – and I didn’t know what he looked like – his picture on the Twitter account is rather abstract and you cannot make out what he looks like.

As I approached the café, a man was already standing outside. I noticed straightaway that the obscure picture on Twitter is not of him but of someone who looks altogether different. I asked him if he was waiting for me and he said he was as he recognised me from my photo on my webpage on the University of Bristol website.

I asked him his name but he declined saying that he didn’t feel comfortable giving me his name, but assuring me that he had good reason not to. I told him that I wasn’t prepared to have a meeting with him unless he told me his name and after some back and forth rather prised his name out of him.

I immediately put his name into Google on my phone to very quickly find that he was convicted of a highly publicised and most pernicious and disturbing gendered crime against a young woman, the like of which would certainly make most (particularly women) want to steer clear of him altogether.

He protested all the time that I was searching and reading what I found, saying such things as he was a miscarriage of justice, that I shouldn’t believe the media on him and his case as it was all biased, that his solicitor was rubbish, etc. Things that I have heard or read hundreds of times as part of my work on alleged wrongful conviction cases.

I have learned, though, that the truly innocent (and I accept that there are always exceptions to every rule but, generally speaking) tend to be very public about their alleged wrongful convictions and happy for any opportunity to tell their version of events to anyone who will listen so that the truth can come out and their names can be cleared.

Think about high profile victims of wrongful convictions such as Gerry Conlon, Paddy Joe Hill, Mike O’Brien and Paul Blackburn, for instance. All convicted for most serious criminal offences – terrorism, murder and child sexual abuse, respectively. They were truly vilified in the media but were never silent or deterred from putting their side of things whenever an opportunity arose.

By comparison, the man that I met with was convicted of a relatively minor offence in a magistrates’ court and did not go to prison. I mentioned the foregoing victims of wrongful convictions to him and suggested that if he truly was an innocent victim of a wrongful conviction that he might want to go public and give his side of the story and let people make their own minds up what they think and who they want to believe. I asked him if was fighting his conviction. He said he was not.

I can report that I will not be contributing to his project, that he did not act upon my suggestions and that he is still entirely anonymous on Twitter. I am somewhat concerned, however, that those already signed up to his project and others engaging with him on Twitter (mainly young women from what I can tell) have no idea who he is or what he was convicted of and might not (I think would not!) want to be involved with him in any way if they did know who he was.

Go careful in the murky world of Twitter and social media, folks – things and people are not always what they might seem.