How to think about social media

Why social media is part of the solution not part of the problem.

How should the use of social media be conceptualized? And how should it be regulated? Can it be regulated? One approach, which seems to be current with policy-makers and has been raised at the Leveson inquiry, is to suggest that social media is just an adjunct of the traditional mainstream media. On this view, blogging and the use of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are entirely capable of directed regulation; the only question is how it is done.

However, such thinking may well be misconceived. It is looking at a new phenomenon and straining it to fit into categories which may no longer be valid. Although one can always over-state the novelty of any development and exaggerate its potential impact, there is a better way of thinking about social media than seeing it as just something shiny and new to regulate. It may not even be capable of specific regulation in any meaningful way.

Social media is about citizens connecting with each other instantly and casually using the internet. It does not matter where one is physically located. There is no need for elaborate telephone and video conferences. No special subscription or permission is required. As long as one has access to the internet then, in principle, there can be immediate contact and the sharing of useful or interesting information.

Most of these online discussions will be trivial in terms of politics and media issues. But social media provides the means by which clusters of like-minded individuals can easily swap ideas and scrutinise data on public matters. In this way, social media users can hold politicians and media outlets to account in a manner not possible -- or conceivable -- until a few years ago. Instead of a politician saying something forgotten the day after, or a reporter's bylined piece being in next day's fish-and-chip paper, those involved in social media can pore over details and make connections weeks and months later. Transgressions can be linked to and accumulated. A speech or a byline can now come back and haunt you long after you have "moved on".

As long as there are those willing to promote such accountability then politicians and media professionals can now be subjected to on-going and sometimes intense examination. The effect of this may be to make those with political and media power more responsible; it will certainly mean that it is more straight-forward and more likely that individuals can be called out for any wrong-doing. On this basis it is not those in power who will be regulating social media, but social media regulating those in power.

Once social media is understood as an advanced form of active citizenship then it can become part of the solution to the problem of abuses of political and media power; not part of the problem to be addressed by regulation. Regardless of the self-serving caricatures promoted by some in the media, the record of bloggers and tweeters compares rather well to tabloid excesses. In the medium- to longer- term, it is clear that those in mainstream media who work with social media will tend to produce better output.

Regulation is just not about formal "black-letter codes" with sanctions and enforcement agencies. Regulation also means simply that things are done better than they otherwise would be: for example, when one "regulates one's own conduct". Bloggers and others in social media are willing and able to call out media excesses and bad journalism. The reaction is immediate and can be brutally frank. They are sometimes wrong, as are formal regulators. But they can take time and allow the media to produce better, more well-informed stories.

The formal regulation of social media may be futile -- anyone can publish to the internet if they want to. The individuals are rightly subject to the law of the land in doing so. It is difficult to see how there could be any formal regulation of social media which would have any significant bite against a determined wrong-doer. One may as well seek to regulate everyday talk with a Conversation Regulatory Authority. But encouraging the mainstream media to constructively engage with social media users is perhaps one good route to better standards of content.

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog.

His legal journalism has included popularising the Simon Singh libel case and discrediting the Julian Assange myths about his extradition case.  His uncovering of the Nightjack email hack by the Times was described as "masterly analysis" by Lord Justice Leveson.

David is also a solicitor and was successful in the "Twitterjoketrial" appeal at the High Court.

(Nothing on this blog constitutes legal advice.)

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UnHerd's rejection of the new isn't as groundbreaking as it seems to think

Tim Montgomerie's new venture has some promise, but it's trying to solve an old problem.

Information overload is oft-cited as one of the main drawbacks of the modern age. There is simply too much to take in, especially when it comes to news. Hourly radio bulletins, rolling news channels and the constant stream of updates available from the internet – there is just more than any one person can consume. 

Luckily Tim Montgomerie, the founder of ConservativeHome and former Times comment editor, is here to help. Montgomerie is launching UnHerd, a new media venture that promises to pull back and focus on "the important things rather than the latest things". 

According to Montgomerie the site has a "package of investment", at least some of which comes from Paul Marshall. He is co-founder of one of Europe's largest hedge funds, Marshall Wace, formerly a longstanding Lib Dem, and also one of the main backers and chair of Ark Schools, an academy chain. The money behind the project is on display in UnHerd's swish (if slightly overwhelming) site, Google ads promoting the homepage, and article commissions worth up to $5,000. The selection of articles at launch includes an entertaining piece by Lionel Shriver on being a "news-aholic", though currently most of the bylines belong to Montgomerie himself. 

Guidelines for contributors, also meant to reflect the site's "values", contain some sensible advice. This includes breaking down ideas into bullet points, thinking about who is likely to read and promote articles, and footnoting facts. 

The guidelines also suggest focusing on what people will "still want to read in six, 12 or 24 months" and that will "be of interest to someone in Cincinnati or Perth as well as Vancouver or St Petersburg and Cape Town and Edinburgh" – though it's not quite clear how one of Montgomerie's early contributions, a defence of George Osborne's editorship of the Evening Standard, quite fits that global criteria. I'm sure it has nothing to do with the full page comment piece Montgomerie got in Osborne's paper to bemoan the deficiencies of modern media on the day UnHerd launched. 

UnHerd's mascot  – a cow – has also created some confusion, compounded by another line in the writing tips describing it as "a cow, who like our target readers, tends to avoid herds and behave in unmissable ways as a result". At least Montgomerie only picked the second-most famous poster animal for herding behaviour. It could have been a sheep. In any case, the line has since disappeared from the post – suggesting the zoological inadequacy of the metaphor may have been recognised. 

There is one way in which UnHerd perfectly embodies its stated aim of avoiding the new – the idea that we need to address the frenetic nature of modern news has been around for years.

"Slow news" – a more considered approach to what's going on in the world that takes in the bigger picture – has been talked about since at least the beginning of this decade.

In fact, it's been around so long that it has become positively mainstream. That pusher of rolling coverage the BBC has been talking about using slow news to counteract fake news, and Montgomerie's old employers, the Times decided last year to move to publishing digital editions at set points during the day, rather than constantly updating as stories break. Even the Guardian – which has most enthusiastically embraced the crack-cocaine of rolling web coverage, the live blog – also publishes regular long reads taking a deep dive into a weighty subject. 

UnHerd may well find an audience particularly attuned to its approach and values. It intends to introduce paid services – an especially good idea given the perverse incentives to chase traffic that come with relying on digital advertising. The ethos it is pitching may well help persuade people to pay, and I don't doubt Montgomerie will be able to find good writers who will deal with big ideas in interesting ways. 

But the idea UnHerd is offering a groundbreaking solution to information overload is faintly ludicrous. There are plenty of ways for people to disengage from the news cycle – and plenty of sources of information and good writing that allow people to do it while staying informed. It's just that given so many opportunities to stay up to date with what has just happened, few people decide they would rather not know.