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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Leader: History is not written in stone

Statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political.

When a mishmash of neo-Nazis, white supremacists, Trump supporters and private militias gathered in Charlottesville, Virginia on 12 August – a rally that ended in the death of a counter-protester – the ostensible reason was the city’s proposal to remove a statue of a man named Robert E Lee.

Lee was a Confederate general who surrendered to Ulysses S Grant at the Appomattox Court House in 1865, in one of the last battles of the American Civil War – a war fought to ensure that Southern whites could continue to benefit from the forced, unpaid labour of black bodies. He died five years later. It might therefore seem surprising that the contested statue of him in Virginia was not commissioned until 1917.

That knowledge, however, is vital to understanding the current debate over such statues. When the “alt-right” – many of whom have been revealed as merely old-fashioned white supremacists – talk about rewriting history, they speak as if history were an objective record arising from an organic process. However, as the American journalist Vann R Newkirk II wrote on 22 August, “obelisks don’t grow from the soil, and stone men and iron horses are never built without purpose”. The Southern Poverty Law Center found that few Confederate statues were commissioned immediately after the end of the war; instead, they arose in reaction to advances such as the foundation of the NAACP in 1909 and the desegregation of schools in the 1950s and 1960s. These monuments represent not history but backlash.

That means these statues have not been politicised by protest; they were always political. They were designed to promote the “Lost Cause” version of the Civil War, in which the conflict was driven by states’ rights rather than slavery. A similar rhetorical sleight of hand can be seen in the modern desire to keep them in place. The alt-right is unwilling to say that it wishes to retain monuments to white supremacy; instead, it claims to object to “history being rewritten”.

It seems trite to say: that is inevitable. Our understanding of the past is perpetually evolving and the hero of one era becomes a pariah in the next. Feminism, anti-colonialism, “people’s history” – all of these movements have questioned who we celebrate and whose stories we tell.

Across the world, statues have become the focus for this debate because they are visible, accessible and shape our experience of public space. There are currently 11 statues in Parliament Square – all of them male. (The suffragist Millicent Fawcett will join them soon, after a campaign led by Caroline Criado-Perez.) When a carving of a disabled artist, Alison Lapper, appeared on the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square, its sculptor, Marc Quinn, acknowledged its significance. “This square celebrates the courage of men in battle,” he said. “Alison’s life is a struggle to overcome much greater difficulties than many of the men we celebrate and commemorate here.”

There are valid reasons to keep statues to figures we would now rather forget. But we should acknowledge this is not a neutral choice. Tearing down our history, looking it in the face, trying to ignore it or render it unexceptional – all of these are political acts. 

The Brexit delusion

After the UK triggered Article 50 in March, the Brexiteers liked to boast that leaving the European Union would prove a simple task. The International Trade Secretary, Liam Fox, claimed that a new trade deal with the EU would be “one of the easiest in human history” to negotiate and could be agreed before the UK’s scheduled departure on 29 March 2019.

However, after the opening of the negotiations, and the loss of the Conservatives’ parliamentary majority, reality has reasserted itself. All cabinet ministers, including Mr Fox, now acknowledge that it will be impossible to achieve a new trade deal before Brexit. As such, we are told that a “transitional period” is essential.

Yet the government has merely replaced one delusion with another. As its recent position papers show, it hopes to leave institutions such as the customs union in 2019 but to preserve their benefits. An increasingly exasperated EU, unsurprisingly, retorts that is not an option. For Britain, “taking back control” will come at a cost. Only when the Brexiteers acknowledge this truth will the UK have the debate it so desperately needs. 

This article first appeared in the 24 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia