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Social media in perspective

Why there are grounds for optimism.

The mob during a revolutionary uprising against the Habsburg Austrian Empire
The fear of the “mob” can be valid, but not always. Image: Getty Images

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.