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.)

Garry Knight via Creative Commons
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Why Barack Obama was right to release Chelsea Manning

A Presidential act of mercy is good for Manning, but also for the US.

In early 2010, a young US military intelligence analyst on an army base near Baghdad slipped a Lady Gaga CD into a computer and sang along to the music. In fact, the soldier's apparently upbeat mood hid two facts. 

First, the soldier later known as Chelsea Manning was completely alienated from army culture, and the callous way she believed it treated civilians in Iraq. And second, she was quietly erasing the music on her CDs and replacing it with files holding explosive military data, which she would release to the world via Wikileaks. 

To some, Manning is a free speech hero. To others, she is a traitor. President Barack Obama’s decision to commute her 35-year sentence before leaving office has been blasted as “outrageous” by leading Republican Paul Ryan. Other Republican critics argue Obama is rewarding an act that endangered the lives of soldiers and intelligence operatives while giving ammunition to Russia. 

They have a point. Liberals banging the drum against Russia’s leak offensive during the US election cannot simultaneously argue leaks are inherently good. 

But even if you think Manning was deeply misguided in her use of Lady Gaga CDs, there are strong reasons why we should celebrate her release. 

1. She was not judged on the public interest

Manning was motivated by what she believed to be human rights abuses in Iraq, but her public interest defence has never been tested. 

The leaks were undoubtedly of public interest. As Manning said in the podcast she recorded with Amnesty International: “When we made mistakes, planning operations, innocent people died.” 

Thanks to Manning’s leak, we also know about the Vatican hiding sex abuse scandals in Ireland, plus the UK promising to protect US interests during the Chilcot Inquiry. 

In countries such as Germany, Canada and Denmark, whistle blowers in sensitive areas can use a public interest defence. In the US, however, such a defence does not exist – meaning it is impossible for Manning to legally argue her actions were in the public good. 

2. She was deemed worse than rapists and murderers

Her sentence was out of proportion to her crime. Compare her 35-year sentence to that received by William Millay, a young police officer, also in 2013. Caught in the act of trying to sell classified documents to someone he believed was a Russian intelligence officer, he was given 16 years

According to Amnesty International: “Manning’s sentence was much longer than other members of the military convicted of charges such as murder, rape and war crimes, as well as any others who were convicted of leaking classified materials to the public.”

3. Her time in jail was particularly miserable 

Manning’s conditions in jail do nothing to dispel the idea she has been treated extraordinarily harshly. When initially placed in solitary confinement, she needed permission to do anything in her cell, even walking around to exercise. 

When she requested treatment for her gender dysphoria, the military prison’s initial response was a blanket refusal – despite the fact many civilian prisons accept the idea that trans inmates are entitled to hormones. Manning has attempted suicide several times. She finally received permission to receive gender transition surgery in 2016 after a hunger strike

4. Julian Assange can stop acting like a martyr

Internationally, Manning’s continued incarceration was likely to do more harm than good. She has said she is sorry “for hurting the US”. Her worldwide following has turned her into an icon of US hypocrisy on free speech.

Then there's the fact Wikileaks said its founder Julian Assange would agree to be extradited to the US if Manning was released. Now that Manning is months away from freedom, his excuses for staying in the Equadorian London Embassy to avoid Swedish rape allegations are somewhat feebler.  

As for the President - under whose watch Manning was prosecuted - he may be leaving his office with his legacy in peril, but with one stroke of his pen, he has changed a life. Manning, now 29, could have expected to leave prison in her late 50s. Instead, she'll be free before her 30th birthday. And perhaps the Equadorian ambassador will finally get his room back. 

 

Julia Rampen is the editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog. She was previously deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines.