In a recent episode of The Big Questions (broadcast April 28 2013), Nicky Campbell tackled the issue of social media misuse and abuse.
Two days prior on April 26 2013, Dean Liddle and Neil Harkins were both handed down suspended sentences (see here) for breaching a court injunction that banned any revelation of the adult identities of Jon Thompson and Terry Venebles – the killers of James Bulger.
Last Febrarury the two men had both posted photos on Twitter and Facebook that claimed to be of the two child killers. As the judge rightly said, the photos could have been seen by thousands of social media users. This was an act directly in contempt of court.
In that context we ask: Is social media out of control?
Vicky Beeching, research fellow in internet ethics at Durham University kickeded things off and gave a twofold answer. She said:
"Firstly, we need to remember that social media is in its infancy. It’s so young. Twitter has turned 7, YouTube has turned 8. We’re literally taking baby steps. So we can’t panic and say it’s out of control.
Secondly, the danger is when we look at the technology and we say that technology is to blame, we need to remember that all technology, whether it’s the invention of the wheel, the printing press or the internet: they’re neutral tools, they’re in our hands and if they’re out of control it’s simply a sign that we’re out of control."
Nicky Campbell rightly added that social media is in effect a reflection on us. But by and large most people are decent and they are fair.
Nicky Campbell then asked: Is there something about social media that allows people to be particularly vile?
Kate Smurthwaite, feminist writer said in response:
"Yes, absolutely. Several decades ago Germaine Greer said, ‘women have little idea how much men hate them.’
Well thank you to the internet we now know. I’m less than a week away from my latest death threat. That’s my life. That’s normal for me (reminds me of the abuse Mary Beard got when she appeared on Question Time).
The first time it happened 5 years ago it was terrifying. Now it’s standard.I don’t think that the solution is to have some massive crack down on social media. There are existing laws: it is illegal to make death threats; it is illegal to make malicious communications. It is illegal to threaten and intimidate people, whether you do it in person or online.
What we actually need is for the police to get up to speed on these issues and to have a really nice, efficient system where you can copy the message and send it over to the police and they can investigate it. Because the truth is: I don’t send these messages to the police. I contact a 19 year old I know who will immediately know much more about how to research it and find out who it is and establish if it’s a real threat, or if it’s nothing to worry about."
John Cooper QC came into the fray. He said:
"Can I just agree with what both Vicky and Kate have said; look if you’re on the social media we all get excessives. We all get trolls. That’s the nature of it. Most of the time you get people wanting to engage in conversation and get to know you.
But yea we just tend to ignore the trolls and the obsessives and let them get on with it. But social media does reflect society and I was really impressed with what Vicky was saying about it; that it’s in a very early stage.
We need to remind ourselves of that."
Nicky Campbell again: Do threats against women on social media represent social media?
John Cooper QC:
"There are steps as far as the law is concerned that can deal with that. The point is that we don’t need to regulate the social media. We always have this knee jerk response to regulate, regulate. There’s over-regulation anyway.
There are again, going back to what Kate said, a lot of laws. About six acts of Parliament. Harassment act, malicious communications act, communications act that my client Paul Chambers was prosecuted under. That being the #TwitterJokeTrial. Public order legislation. All these acts of Parliament are there and they can powerfully be used.
One point about the police though: lets be careful ab out reporting things to the police. The examples given by Kate and Vicky are serious examples but sometimes there is an over-reporting."
Nicky Campbell: someone tweeted something awful about Tom Daly and it went through the police channels.
John Cooper QC:
"It’s a matter of common sense and balance.
I mean common sense is the word as far as social media is concerned. The one thing I would like to get out if I can, I think it’s important: let’s not knee jerk and inform the police. If it’s bad it’s bad, the police have to be involved. But the police are being overstretched as it is at the moment.
The plea from the police is: yes report it but don’t knee jerk report everything."
"My problem is really with jurisdiction. Four or five years ago when I contacted the police they said they couldn’t really deal with it because it’s not in our city and it wasn't in their state."
John Cooper QC said flatly that that is incorrect thinking.
The human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell came into the debate. He said:
"I think we need to make a distinction between social media comments which are merely offensive and which are not nice, and those that actually encourage violence and death.
After confronting Nick Griffin of the BNP about his views on homosexuals, Jews and ethnic minorities some of his supporters photoshopped a photo of me saying that I was a child molester. Death threats followed and people believed what they saw in the photo."
Nick Campbell again: Is anonymity the problem here?
Peter Tatchell: Partly, it gives them the carte blanche.
John Cooper QC said:
"They think they have anonymity but let me say something: the law has changed. There’s a legal instrument - the Norwich Pharmacal Order - which lawyers use nowadays that can be used to contact third parties like Twitter, like Facebook and compel them to reveal who trolls and obsessives are and who the criminals are.
So let it be very clear indeed: those people who are tweeting anonymously will be found out.
But just one other thing on what Peter Tatchell said: it’s also important that the law enforcement agencies get a grip as well. Going back to the Paul Chambers case (#TwitterJokeTrial) – one of the seminal cases that I did along with David Allen Green of Press Skills – and that was a man that simply tweeted to his girlfriend, “if this airport closes down I will blow the place up”.
Now the fact of the matter is that the police didn’t take it seriously. The security didn’t take it seriously at the airport. But the CPS for some reason best known to themselves decided to prosecute this, going through 7 different court hearings and wasting thousands of pounds of taxpayers money.
It linked into freedom of speech as well."
"It worries me that we’re expecting the police to play a big role in this. It seems like companies like Twitter and Facebook are doing this on the cheap.
In the 1990s I was a moderator for AOL and they had a system that chucked out people from online chat rooms who were abusing other people. And these new media companies don’t seem to be taking the responsibility."
Krish Kandiah of the Evangelical Alliance asked: How do we get the balance in protecting people in oppressive states and whistle blowers against social media abusers?
John Cooper QC:
"There’s a delicate balance here on the freedom of speech issue.
Freedom of speech isn't always about being nice. Freedom of speech is also about saying things that can be objectionable."
Nicky Campbell: Should we give leeway to people on social media because it is instantaneous and of the moment?
John Cooper QC: Common sense is the key.
"We need much more training for the police so they know what a malicious communication looks like. Because the average teenager I know knows loads more about what’s going on on the internet.
I we got the right training and resource we could use the internet to catch the real criminals committing real crimes.
The Bostom bombing is an example of how the police force engaged with the community, they asked for marathon runners to participate, they asked for content to be uploaded to them and the individuals really felt engaged and as though they were doing something positive and in the end it helped to apprehend the suspects."
Nicky Campbell: But lots of people were wrongly named as well?
Vicky Beeching: "That’s really an example of social media at its worst. We all learnt a lot from that. Like I said, we’re in the infancy of these technologies. We’re taking baby steps and we’re learning how to take things seriously, how not to and lots of us retweeted things things that were incorrect and won’t do it again."
John Cooper QC: "It’s about self-policing and self-regulation."
Nicky Campbell: Some will say self-regulation didn’t work with the press, is it going to work with social networking?
Leon Gordon of the Centre for Conflict Resolution said:
"I think that if people had to identify themselves properly then you wouldn't have half of the problems. The problem is that people know that they can be anonymous.
These media companies are multi-billion dollars outfits and I’m sure that they could police it themselves if they wanted to really."
Nicky Campbell: If we look to the whole Lord McAlpine affair, should there be an element of personal responsibility?
Writer and journalist Cole Moreton:
"One aspect that we haven’t addressed is the global aspect of social media. Lord Leveson looking at press regulation scratched his head when it came to social media and said well it’s a terrible thing but I don’t know quite what to do about it.
Actually what is going on is a dislocation. We talked about publishing and how we have to be aware that we’re publishing every time we tweet, however we’re getting on as though we’re acting in a British media context.
But actually we’re operating in a great human soup.
We’ve talked here about educating the police but what we actually need to do is educate the people who use social media. To let them understand that when you slag somebody off, you’re actually making a published comment. Published around the world."
"Free speech is massively important and we must defend it but it does not allow you to libel people or claim that someone is a child sex abuser or a tax fraudster when they’re not.
Free speech does not mean you can incite violence or threaten and menace other people. That is an abuse of free speech and in fact closes down the debate."
Cole Moreton rightly added that Peter Tatchell has been received death threats and menacing communications for years because of his work in confronting fringe groups. He rightly added that all social media has done is to amplify the push back from these groups.
Nicky Campbell: What about the racist aspect of social media?
Leon Gordon: It makes it a lot easier for people to be racist. There are hundreds of videos on YouTube that should be taken down that aren’t. Such as video of police in South Africa shooting at black people with AK47s.
James Norris smacked down the idea of censorship, explaining that the presence of these videos plays an important role by highlighting important issues and problems that exist in the world - problems that we wouldn’t otherwise be aware of.
John Cooper QC added:
"Exactly, it’s all about self-policing. And let’s remember the positives. This is a medium which educates, which bring people together. Which is incredibly good."
‘Twiter users: A guide to the law’, by Brian Wheeler.
Law Society of England and Wales – How to Protect Your Online Reputation
Mashable - ‘Geography of Hate’, maps racist and homophobic tweets.
Misuse and spreading of false information on social media could wreck havoc, warns World Economic Forum.
Scotland Yard sacks 7 for misusing Facebook and Twitter. Read here.
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