How should the use of social media be conceptualized? And how should it be regulated? Can it be regulated? One approach, which seems to be current with policy-makers and has been raised at the Leveson inquiry, is to suggest that social media is just an adjunct of the traditional mainstream media. On this view, blogging and the use of platforms such as Twitter and Facebook are entirely capable of directed regulation; the only question is how it is done.
However, such thinking may well be misconceived. It is looking at a new phenomenon and straining it to fit into categories which may no longer be valid. Although one can always over-state the novelty of any development and exaggerate its potential impact, there is a better way of thinking about social media than seeing it as just something shiny and new to regulate. It may not even be capable of specific regulation in any meaningful way.
Social media is about citizens connecting with each other instantly and casually using the internet. It does not matter where one is physically located. There is no need for elaborate telephone and video conferences. No special subscription or permission is required. As long as one has access to the internet then, in principle, there can be immediate contact and the sharing of useful or interesting information.
Most of these online discussions will be trivial in terms of politics and media issues. But social media provides the means by which clusters of like-minded individuals can easily swap ideas and scrutinise data on public matters. In this way, social media users can hold politicians and media outlets to account in a manner not possible — or conceivable — until a few years ago. Instead of a politician saying something forgotten the day after, or a reporter’s bylined piece being in next day’s fish-and-chip paper, those involved in social media can pore over details and make connections weeks and months later. Transgressions can be linked to and accumulated. A speech or a byline can now come back and haunt you long after you have “moved on”.
As long as there are those willing to promote such accountability then politicians and media professionals can now be subjected to on-going and sometimes intense examination. The effect of this may be to make those with political and media power more responsible; it will certainly mean that it is more straight-forward and more likely that individuals can be called out for any wrong-doing. On this basis it is not those in power who will be regulating social media, but social media regulating those in power.
Once social media is understood as an advanced form of active citizenship then it can become part of the solution to the problem of abuses of political and media power; not part of the problem to be addressed by regulation. Regardless of the self-serving caricatures promoted by some in the media, the record of bloggers and tweeters compares rather well to tabloid excesses. In the medium- to longer- term, it is clear that those in mainstream media who work with social media will tend to produce better output.
Regulation is just not about formal “black-letter codes” with sanctions and enforcement agencies. Regulation also means simply that things are done better than they otherwise would be: for example, when one “regulates one’s own conduct”. Bloggers and others in social media are willing and able to call out media excesses and bad journalism. The reaction is immediate and can be brutally frank. They are sometimes wrong, as are formal regulators. But they can take time and allow the media to produce better, more well-informed stories.
The formal regulation of social media may be futile — anyone can publish to the internet if they want to. The individuals are rightly subject to the law of the land in doing so. It is difficult to see how there could be any formal regulation of social media which would have any significant bite against a determined wrong-doer. One may as well seek to regulate everyday talk with a Conversation Regulatory Authority. But encouraging the mainstream media to constructively engage with social media users is perhaps one good route to better standards of content.
David Allen Green is legal correspondent of the New Statesman and author of the Jack of Kent blog