In the age of Facebook, insulting April Jones comes with a heavy price - as Matthew Woods is finding out

The 19 year-old produced an assortment of tasteless insults. In the age of social media and online interaction, what he said was unacceptable and deserves to be punished

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He cried in court. The man who has been charged with kidnapping and murdering April Jones, and also hiding her body, cried on Monday in court.

He didn’t explain his tears. He didn’t say, for example, whether he was crying because he’d done a terrible thing, or whether he was crying because he’d been arrested even though he hadn’t. Or whether he was crying because a five-year-old girl, who loved her guinea pig, and her friends, and her family, and her life, was dead.

Mark Bridger, who used to spend his days saving people’s lives, is the only person who knows whether or not he took little April’s life away. He may, or may not, know exactly what happened to her, and if she’s alive or dead. He may, or may not, know where she, or her body, is. If he does, then April’s parents, who are stuck in a hell where fear and grief and hope are all mixed up, can only pray that he’ll tell.

Maybe he will. Maybe he won’t. But one thing is clear. If Mark Bridger did ask April Jones to climb into his van, and if he did take her somewhere, and if he did do something terrible to her, something that meant she lost her life, he can’t think, and could never have thought, that nobody would care. He can’t think, and could never have thought, that a place where hundreds of people go out to search, in the cold, and the rain, and the dark, and where hundreds of people wear pink ribbons, because a mother asks them to, and where hundreds of people light candles, and some send lanterns floating into the sky, would be a place where a little girl could disappear and nobody could care.

Matthew Woods didn’t cry in court. The man who posted Facebook messages that made jokes about April Jones, and Madeleine McCann, and transit vans, and April fools, didn’t cry on Monday in court. He didn’t say if he had cried when he wrote those messages, after seeing a joke on a website called Sikipedia. He didn’t say if he had cried when he made jokes about the missing five-year-old and sex.

Matthew Woods didn’t say whether he was surprised to be arrested “for his own safety” when about 50 people he didn’t know turned up at his home. He didn’t say whether he was surprised that 50 people had read his Facebook posts, and whether, perhaps, that was more people than had ever read his posts before. He didn’t say if what he felt, when the people turned up, was a little bit of pleasure at a little bit of fame. But he did plead guilty to a crime. He did, in fact, plead guilty to the charge of “sending a grossly offensive public electronic communication”.

Some of us didn’t know it was a crime. Some of us, and particularly those of us who get tweets, and emails, and online messages, saying that we’re stupid, and ugly, and calling us words we can’t quote in a family newspaper, didn’t know that saying nasty things in “electronic communication” was a crime. Some of us thought that saying nasty things “in electronic communication” was entirely normal. And that, if it was a crime, you’d be prosecuting people all the time.

But apparently it is. According to section 127 of the Communications Act 2003, it is. According to this Act, if you send a message that’s “grossly offensive or of an indecent, obscene or menacing character”, or a series of messages that are “intended to cause annoyance, inconvenience or needless anxiety”, it is. And the Crown Prosecution Service, and the magistrates who saw the messages, which joked about a missing five-year-old as someone you might want to have sex with, decided that it was. And sentenced Matthew Woods to three months in jail.

Matthew Woods, who’s 19, and unemployed, didn’t tell the court that he felt lonely and inadequate. He didn’t tell them that he was on Facebook because it made him feel, in ways he usually didn’t feel, that he was part of a community. He didn’t say that what he liked about this community was that you could behave as if other people weren’t real. But most people who post nasty messages on social media do feel lonely and inadequate, and most of them do behave as if other people aren’t real. They behave, in fact, as if other people are just there to provide an audience so that they can show off.

Perhaps these people really do think that if you can’t see a person, they can’t be real. Perhaps they can see a woman on TV crying over her lost child, and think that the best thing to do is to post a joke on Facebook. Perhaps they can’t tell the difference between a public arena and their head.

If so, it’s time they learnt. If these are our new communities, it’s time we all learnt. These new communities might not be like the old communities, where people will give up time, and energy, and the warmth of their homes, to show support. But they can still be communities where people don’t think that the way to feel included is to vomit out your darkest thoughts.

In these new communities, we will have to learn to live with being offended. When the insults hurt, we’ll have to learn to soak up the bile. But we’ll also have to learn to recognise when a line has been crossed. And with Matthew Woods’ sad, stupid, sick jokes about a missing five-year-old girl with cerebral palsy, a line was crossed.

Woods, says his lawyer, is “remorseful”. He didn’t, he says, know what he was doing. Let’s hope that he, and all the lonely, inadequate people who spread their misery every time they touch a keyboard, can, through their tears or even without them, see a bit more clearly now.

c.patterson@independent.co.uk

Twitter: @queenchristina_

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