Social media in perspective

Why there are grounds for optimism.

Until about ten or so years ago, it was actually quite difficult to publish or broadcast to the world. You could perhaps hire a vanity publisher, or produce pamphlets and hand them out in your High Street. Or you could start a pirate radio station. But, in general terms, the means of publication and broadcast were in the hands of the few, not the many. 

You may have been able to share your ideas or information with your friends, or write letters to distant correspondents; but there were real and substantial checks on you circulating what you had to say to the public at large. The best you could perhaps hope for would be a letter to the newspaper, published at the behest of the editor, or a call to some phone-in programme, which could then be cut off any moment.

In those days to be published or broadcast usually involved a complicated process of being commissioned, edited, and “lawyered”. Only when certain steps were taken would a publication or broadcast be let loose on the public. And on publication or broadcast, certain areas of law would be engaged. You could then be sued or prosecuted for what you chose to deliberately put into the public domain; but there was often little real risk of facing the law in such ways, just because of the onerous process involved to have even got that far.

Now everyone with an internet connection, and access to an appropriate social media or blogging platform, can now publish or broadcast to the world, and they can do so at a simple press of a button. However, the legal obligations essentially remain the same, but without those editors and lawyers who would minimise or eliminate any risk as part of the process. We are all potential publishers and broadcasters, and the law treats us just as if we were faceless media corporations.

Some suggest that social media should somehow be “regulated”.  It is not clear what this would mean. For example, to “regulate” something usually means that there are powers to prevent certain actions.  But one may as well seek to regulate breathing or the tides, insofar that any attempts to apply formal prohibitions would work in respect of social media. All because one asserts that something should be regulated does not mean it is, in fact, capable of being regulated.

So we are now in a situation where it is possible for anyone in principle to publish what they want to everyone else. For some that is, of course, a troublesome notion. One only has to think about those who recently named a rape victim to realise that with this great power can come great irresponsibility. More recently there have been other example of people tweeting and blogging things which, had they applied a moment’s thought, they would not have done.

But it is not remarkable that there have been so many examples of abuses in social media, but that there have been so few. And this is why there are grounds for optimism. The fear of the “mob” can be valid. However, it is not always the case that handing power to people will end in disaster.

In the mid-1800s, otherwise sensible politicians were against giving people something as politically significant as the franchise. Centuries before, some Christian leaders were against allowing their fellow worshippers direct access to scripture (and a few still do). In all these cases, there was a sincere concern that people will tend to misuse new powers. We may be mature enough to conduct our private affairs, the argument seems to have been, and to pay taxes and serve on juries, and to kill other human beings in wars; but it would be quite out of the question to trust us with anything of wider import.

In ten or so years, when being able to publish or broadcast to the world is as much a commonplace as being able to telephone Australia, we may look back at this current nervousness with bemusement. And it may well be that by then tweeting or blogging without appropriate thought will be like crossing a road without looking, the preserve of idiots and the reckless. 

Being able to publish and broadcast our ideas beyond our immediate circle means that artificial holds certain media and political elites have over flows of information will break down, and that ultimately is a good thing even if, at the current time, there are painful pangs of a new development.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and was solicitor for Paul Chambers in the successful appeal in the “TwitterJokeTrial” case.

The fear of the “mob” can be valid, but not always. Image: Getty Images

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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Commons Confidential: Gaffe-tastic Johnson, a missing Osborne, and a bit of May-hem

Plus rumours that Sir Keir “Call Me Mr” Starmer will throw his flat cap into the next Labour Party leadership contest.

Unlike Theresa May, the gaffe-tastic Boris Johnson is sackable. The blond bumbler did himself no favours by upsetting British Sikhs with his gurdwara “clinky” booze talk in a mock Indian accent, or foreshadowing the social care switch before his Downing Street line manager executed the humiliating manifesto manoeuvre.

May-hem’s position is assured as Prime Minister should the Tories win the election, but not so Johnson’s as Foreign Secretary. I hear that Johnson, too often the cause of chaos in the Conservative Party coalition, has made a dangerous enemy in Team May. Nick Timothy, May’s joint chief of staff, is said to be agitating for BoJo to be reshuffled ahead of the Brexit negotiations. Tick-tock.

Unless he has slipped into the building under cover of night, George Osborne hasn’t been seen at BlackRock’s London HQ since signing a £650,000 contract earlier this year, whispers my snout. Perhaps the former Tory chancellor is too busy, work on the London Evening Standard free sheet leaving an editor training on the job looking distinctly jaded. With BlackRock’s speculators nervous about divulging secrets to a budding journalist, the rapacious New York-based capitalist citadel would be forgiven if it wondered whether Boy George is value for money.

He is the son of a toolmaker and a nurse and is named after the Labour socialist Keir Hardie, and his energetic election campaign is fuelling speculation that Sir Keir “Call Me Mr” Starmer will throw his flat cap into the next party leadership contest. A Unite trade union fan of Starmer (yes, they exist) insisted that Camden doesn’t carry the negative Islington baggage of the incumbent. (Starmer represents Holborn and St Pancras, a leaflet’s throw from Corbyn’s constituency.) It may also help that Starmer has fallen out with Peter Mandelson, mastermind of the Blairite counter-revolution. The Prince of Darkness angrily judges the shadow Brexit secretary to be insufficiently Euroenthusiastic. If only the electorate felt the same.

Labour’s deputy and Unite old boy, Tom Watson, has joined the GMB trade union. Sounds like a smart insurance policy when he’s fallen out badly with Len McCluskey. Everybody needs employment protection.

No gushing One Show party political broadcasts for Labour. Jeremy Corbyn and his wife, Laura Alvarez, are declining to follow Theresa and Philip May in discussing boy and girl jobs on BBC1. Corbyn is fiercely protective of his family’s privacy. The other reason, I’m told, is a fear that the Mexican Alvarez’s slight Spanish lilt might reinforce suspicions among some of Labour’s more old-school supporters that he’s a member of the London metropolitan elite.

Kevin Maguire is Associate Editor (Politics) on the Daily Mirror and author of our Commons Confidential column on the high politics and low life in Westminster. An award-winning journalist, he is in frequent demand on television and radio and co-authored a book on great parliamentary scandals. He was formerly Chief Reporter on the Guardian and Labour Correspondent on the Daily Telegraph.

This article first appeared in the 25 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Why Islamic State targets Britain

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