Why you might want to call your lawyer before you tweet

As a new Madrid councilor found out last month, off-color jokes can come back to bite you

Luis Gómez
Guillermo Zapata during the press conference in which he announced his resignation as Madrid culture chief.
Guillermo Zapata during the press conference in which he announced his resignation as Madrid culture chief.BERNARDO PÉREZ

Soon after Guillermo Zapata’s appointment as the new culture chief at Madrid City Hall last month, the revelation surfaced that four years ago he had posted a number of offensive jokes about the Holocaust and Basque terrorist group ETA on Twitter. Just 48 hours after taking up the role, he was forced to resign and now faces calls to be charged in the courts with offenses of humiliating victims of terrorism.

Zapata was a nobody who is now a somebody, and thus was obliged to answer for what he said in the past. Were those jokes a crime? Are they today being read out of context by a mass audience for whom they were never intended? What are the limits of humor? Do comments made on the social networks live on for ever?

Were his jokes a crime? What are the limits of humor? Do comments made on social networks live forever?

Carlos Sánchez Almeida is a Spanish lawyer specializing in internet issues. “Are 140 letters a discourse?” he asks. “Nothing can be understood out of context, and that is a source of errors, particularly when interpreting irony. This is a curious phenomenon. The penal code cannot be applied retroactively, but in the case of the social networks, the crime can be permanent, because it remains online.”

According to Almeida, Spain’s new penal code interprets all sorts of offenses as crimes of justifying terrorism or threatening the monarchy. For example, sending a tweet saying, “Death to the king, long live the republic” could be understood in this way because the code condemns the fact of “facilitating” such crimes. “We need to be prudent and careful. Erasing tweets is a mistake because context is the best defense.” Almeida, who has defended Spanish hackers, knows that nothing is ever completely erased on the internet.

Nothing can be understood out of context, and that is a source of errors, particularly when interpreting irony” Lawyer Carlos Sánchez Almeida

“This is the judicialization of conversation,” says Enrique Dans, a lecturer in information systems at the IE Business School in Madrid. “Using any comment in a combative political climate weakens the value of the social networks.”

Dans, who has written extensively about the impact of the social networks, notes: “It is easy to take things out of context: applying these kinds of standards makes any kind of political activity impossible. It’s a cultural question. There are jokes in Spain that would be unacceptable in other environments. We say things like, ‘Don’t be a Jew, pay up.’ Or, ‘Even the Chinese know that.’ I’ve heard teachers say it without realizing there are Chinese students in their class.”

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He says Twitter has changed, and that many people have not realized how global it now is. “Twitter started out as a way to find out what your friends were up to. It then became a communication channel to follow people you thought were interesting, even if you didn’t know them.” His advice to anybody thinking of sending out a tweet: “Imagine your words printed across four columns on the front page of a newspaper.”

Eduardo Jáuregui is a psychologist and expert in the applications of humor in the workplace through his company Humor Positivo. “Our culture imposes the limits of humor, which is totally subjective, just like art,” he says. “Sensitivity depends on the environment.”

Jáuregui cites the example of the healthcare sector, “where humor is necessary, very black, and very brutal. Black humor is very common in hospitals, it is necessary for people who live with suffering. If they didn’t use it, they would explode.”

But then, of course, what if patients or their families knew what was being said? A look through a Spanish-language website called emfermerasaturada.es, which is filled with anecdotes and jokes about hospital life, gives some indication of how medical personnel deal with the stresses of their work.

Imagine your tweet printed across four columns on the front page of a newspaper”

Writer and thinker Javier Gomá discussed the taboos of humor at last year’s Festival de la Risa de Bilbao, a comedy event held in the Basque city. He particularly focused on the controversy surrounding French satirical publication Charlie Hebdo. “There is something particular about Spain: we have come out of a dictatorship, where the first thing you lose is your sense of humor. The Transition interpreted freedom of expression expansively, even when it conflicted with other rights. This has been the prevailing principle. Perhaps the time has come to get over this: if we have to establish legal limits, that will mean sanctions. Or perhaps we have to set limits on good taste and not punish infractions, but censure as a society.”

At the same time, Gomá admits that you can’t please everybody all of the time. “Georges Bataille, the French philosopher, said you can’t have eroticism without taboos. Humor needs sacred cows, we need that liberating force.”

But there is now a new element: “People are not properly educated about how to use the social networks. When I’m writing in 2011, I’m not thinking about a tweet being taken out of context in 2015. Humor is contextual, a joke a guy makes in the gym is not appropriate at a dinner table with wives and friends. Context conditions humor. On the social networks there seems to be one apparent context, but there might also potentially be another one. It’s like when a politician makes a comment thinking they are off-mic, but everybody can hear them.”

“The literal meaning of the tweet remains, but the context changes,” he concludes.

In 2011, Guillermo Zapata was nobody, but in 2015, he was the head of culture in the Spanish capital. Now there’s a change of context if ever there was one.

Breaking taboos through jokes

Joking has long been studied by social psychologists. Darío Páez Rovira is a professor of social psychology at the University of the Basque Country, and has written extensively on the subject of jokes. “Black humor tends to be found in individualist and egalitarian cultures rather than collective, consensus-based societies,” he says.

“Joking is universal,” writes Páez in a recent article. “Jokes are a way of dealing with taboo subjects such as sex, identity and cultural dominance. But people don’t joke about the same things everywhere – in other words, humor is influenced by culture,” he says. “There is aggressive humor, which is related to sarcasm, ridicule and irony. Humor can be used as a weapon, by ridiculing people and institutions.”

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