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.)

Photo: Getty
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After Richmond Park, Labour MPs are haunted by a familiar ghost

Labour MPs in big cities fear the Liberal Democrats, while in the north, they fear Ukip. 

The Liberal Democrats’ victory in Richmond Park has Conservatives nervous, and rightly so. Not only did Sarah Olney take the votes of soft Conservatives who backed a Remain vote on 23 June, she also benefited from tactical voting from Labour voters.

Although Richmond Park is the fifth most pro-Remain constituency won by a Conservative at the 2015 election, the more significant number – for the Liberal Democrats at least – is 15: that’s the number of Tory-held seats they could win if they reduced the Labour vote by the same amount they managed in Richmond Park.

The Tories have two Brexit headaches, electorally speaking. The first is the direct loss of voters who backed David Cameron in 2015 and a Remain vote in 2016 to the Liberal Democrats. The second is that Brexit appears to have made Liberal Democrat candidates palatable to Labour voters who backed the party as the anti-Conservative option in seats where Labour is generally weak from 1992 to 2010, but stayed at home or voted Labour in 2015.

Although local council by-elections are not as dramatic as parliamentary ones, they offer clues as to how national elections may play out, and it’s worth noting that Richmond Park wasn’t the only place where the Liberal Democrats saw a dramatic surge in the party’s fortunes. They also made a dramatic gain in Chichester, which voted to leave.

(That’s the other factor to remember in the “Leave/Remain” divide. In Liberal-Conservative battlegrounds where the majority of voters opted to leave, the third-placed Labour and Green vote tends to be heavily pro-Remain.)

But it’s not just Conservatives with the Liberal Democrats in second who have cause to be nervous.  Labour MPs outside of England's big cities have long been nervous that Ukip will do to them what the SNP did to their Scottish colleagues in 2015. That Ukip is now in second place in many seats that Labour once considered safe only adds to the sense of unease.

In a lot of seats, the closeness of Ukip is overstated. As one MP, who has the Conservatives in second place observed, “All that’s happened is you used to have five or six no-hopers, and all of that vote has gone to Ukip, so colleagues are nervous”. That’s true, to an extent. But it’s worth noting that the same thing could be said for the Liberal Democrats in Conservative seats in 1992. All they had done was to coagulate most of the “anyone but the Conservative” vote under their banner. In 1997, they took Conservative votes – and with it, picked up 28 formerly Tory seats.

Also nervous are the party’s London MPs, albeit for different reasons. They fear that Remain voters will desert them for the Liberal Democrats. (It’s worth noting that Catherine West, who sits for the most pro-Remain seat in the country, has already told constituents that she will vote against Article 50, as has David Lammy, another North London MP.)

A particular cause for alarm is that most of the party’s high command – Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott, and Keir Starmer – all sit for seats that were heavily pro-Remain. Thornberry, in particular, has the particularly dangerous combination of a seat that voted Remain in June but has flirted with the Liberal Democrats in the past, with the shadow foreign secretary finishing just 484 votes ahead of Bridget Fox, the Liberal Democrat candidate, in 2005.

Are they right to be worried? That the referendum allowed the Liberal Democrats to reconfigure the politics of Richmond Park adds credence to a YouGov poll that showed a pro-Brexit Labour party finishing third behind a pro-second referendum Liberal Democrat party, should Labour go into the next election backing Brexit and the Liberal Democrats opt to oppose it.

The difficulty for Labour is the calculation for the Liberal Democrats is easy. They are an unabashedly pro-European party, from their activists to their MPs, and the 22 per cent of voters who back a referendum re-run are a significantly larger group than the eight per cent of the vote that Nick Clegg’s Liberal Democrats got in 2015.

The calculus is more fraught for Labour. In terms of the straight Conservative battle, their best hope is to put the referendum question to bed and focus on issues which don’t divide their coalition in two, as immigration does. But for separate reasons, neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats will be keen to let them.

At every point, the referendum question poses difficulties for Labour. Even when neither Ukip nor the Liberal Democrats take seats from them directly, they can hurt them badly, allowing the Conservatives to come through the middle.

The big problem is that the stance that makes sense in terms of maintaining party unity is to try to run on a ticket of moving past the referendum and focussing on the party’s core issues of social justice, better public services and redistribution.

But the trouble with that approach is that it’s alarmingly similar to the one favoured by Kezia Dugdale and Scottish Labour in 2016, who tried to make the election about public services, not the constitution. They came third, behind a Conservative party that ran on an explicitly pro-Union platform. The possibility of an English sequel should not be ruled out.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to British politics.