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16 May 2011

Who is using whom?

How social media can be exploited by mainstream media.

By David Allen Green

Back in October 2010, the Guardian website published a rather curious and precisely worded post stating it had been gagged from publishing a parliamentary question. Within minutes, Twitter users had decoded this cryptic piece and identified one of the parties involved as Trafigura.

What was perhaps most significant about this episode was not so much the industry and ingenuity of Twitter, but the lingering suspicion that the Guardian knew full well that this would happen. It appeared to me that the Guardian was having its cake and eating it: abiding by the terms of the injunction (as at least as contended by Trafigura’s lawyers) but also ensuring that the information got out there all the same.

The publication of “superinjunction” tweets last week may be a similar sort of exercise. Of course, it may be possible that the tweets were put together by some media law enthusiast, based on public domain information, guesswork, and rumour. However, what is more likely is that they were published by someone within the mainstream media with the intention of the tweets “going viral” on Twitter.

If so, then it may not so much be an example of social media circumventing the jurisdiction of the courts as the mainstream media doing so at arm’s length.

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For all its merits, social media remains largely parasitical in its relationship with mainstream media, especially in respect of emerging legal news. In this case, it is difficult to conceive how Twitter users could have come across any of the alleged “superinjuctions” without someone in mainstream media first feeding in the required information.

It may well be that Twitter and other social media provide fundamental challenges to privacy and similar injunctions. That is certainly how some in both social media users and mainstream media would like it to be.

But it may also be the case that the mainstream media are just seeking to exploit social media in trying to defeat properly obtained injunctions protecting sensitive and private information. And, if so, the feeling of being used for such commercial ends is not a pleasant one.

 

David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and a media lawyer.