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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The Home Office made Theresa May. But it could still destroy her

Even politicians who leave the Home Office a success may find themselves dogged by it. 

Good morning. When Theresa May left the Home Office for the last time, she told civil servants that there would always be a little bit of the Home Office inside her.

She meant in terms of its enduring effect on her, but today is a reminder of its enduring ability to do damage on her reputation in the present day.

The case of Jamal al-Harith, released from Guantanamo Bay under David Blunkett but handed a £1m compensation payout under Theresa May, who last week died in a suicide bomb attack on Iraqi forces in Mosul, where he was fighting on behalf of Isis. 

For all Blunkett left in the wake of a scandal, his handling of the department was seen to be effective and his reputation was enhanced, rather than diminished, by his tenure. May's reputation as a "safe pair of hands" in the country, as "one of us" on immigration as far as the Conservative right is concerned and her credibility as not just another headbanger on stop and search all come from her long tenure at the Home Office. 

The event was the cue for the Mail to engage in its preferred sport of Blair-bashing. It’s all his fault for the payout – which in addition to buying al-Harith a house may also have fattened the pockets of IS – and the release. Not so fast, replied Blair in a punchy statement: didn’t you campaign for him to be released, and wasn’t the payout approved by your old pal Theresa May? (I paraphrase slightly.)

That resulted in a difficult Q&A for Downing Street’s spokesman yesterday, which HuffPo’s Paul Waugh has posted in full here. As it was May’s old department which has the job of keeping tabs on domestic terror threats the row rebounds onto her. 

Blair is right to say that every government has to “balance proper concern for civil liberties with desire to protect our security”. And it would be an act of spectacular revisionism to declare that Blair’s government was overly concerned with civil liberty rather than internal security.

Whether al-Harith should never have been freed or, as his family believe, was picked up by mistake before being radicalised in prison is an open question. Certainly the journey from wrongly-incarcerated fellow traveller to hardened terrorist is one that we’ve seen before in Northern Ireland and may have occurred here.

Regardless, the presumption of innocence is an important one but it means that occasionally, that means that someone goes on to commit crimes again. (The case of Ian Stewart, convicted of murdering the author Helen Bailey yesterday, and who may have murdered his first wife Diane Stewart as well, is another example of this.)

Nonetheless, May won’t have got that right every time. Her tenure at the Home Office, so crucial to her reputation as a “safe pair of hands”, may yet be weaponised by a clever rival, whether from inside or outside the Conservative Party. 

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