Irrational fears about new media have become surreal


In time it may become a popular table quiz question. Who, on December 12th, 2012, said: “Dear friends, I am pleased to get in touch with you through Twitter”? The answer is Pope Benedict XVI, who became the latest world leader to use the microblogging website. He has more than 1.3 million followers but uttered only 22 sentences in 14 tweets in his first fortnight on the site.

His impact, at least by means of this medium, pales in comparison to that of US president Barack Obama, whose 25 million followers hear from him about four times a day on average. On the night of his re-election in November a three-word tweet that said “Four more years” and included a now iconic photo of his embrace of his wife, Michelle, was forwarded 800,000 times, making it the most retweeted photo ever.

These milestones happened in a year in which internet-based comment on blogs, microblogs and other social media again grew exponentially. As the reach of new media has extended, its impact has grown. Unfortunately, ignorance and fear about new media have grown in parallel.

The irrationality surrounding much of mainstream political engagement with new media here culminated last Thursday when the lead headline on RTÉ’s Six One News was that an Oireachtas committee is to hold a special meeting in the new year to examine the role of social media in public comment.

It is not the fact that the Committee on Transport and Communications is holding a meeting about social media that is strange. Rather it’s that it led a mainstream news cycle. Even by the standards of the post-Christmas silly season the prominence given to the proposed inquiry was surreal. Of all of the things an Oireachtas committee could get stuck into in what will be a nervous 2013, surely this is not the most significant or newsworthy.

The committee’s chairman, Tom Hayes, told RTÉ that online bullying and “anonymous comment” were “a very difficult issue” and “must be dealt with”. His committee is to draw up a report for Minister for Communications Pat Rabbitte examining whether there is a need for regulation or legislation.

The prospect of such parliamentary attention sends shivers up the champions of internet freedom who, somewhat naively, continue to believe everyone should be able to say whatever they wish on the web. They argue that hateful or inaccurate utterances will be corrected, shouted down or drowned out.

I should, in the interest of full disclosure and because some online commentators would no doubt like to suggest a conflict of interests, point out that my wife works as European director of public policy for Twitter, although we argue on these issues as we do on others.

Concerns about bullying and verbal abuse, whether directed at middle-aged politicians or teenage girls, are well founded but the fascination with somehow controlling the medium through which some of this bullying or abuse is inflicted is not.

A central issue for our political system and popular culture for 2013 should be tackling abusive and bullying behaviour and the attitudes that give rise to it, rather than focusing on clumsy investigations or knee-jerk regulation of the means by which hurtful or hateful messages are delivered.

Many lawyers such as myself believe the internet does not need new laws as there is ample legislation on the statute books to address many of the abuses complained about. As with all new areas of human activity, however, the social media requires new means of policing for transgressions of the law, and of punishing criminal breaches when they arise.

There is already legal redress against internet libel: it is the same law that provides a remedy to anyone libelled by a newspaper. It is already an offence to use a means of electronic communication for harassment or criminal abuse. The laws on privacy, though inadequate, apply to the internet as they do to any publication.

On the non-criminal level, problems such as internet bullying can be confronted with policies similar to those intended to tackle bullying elsewhere. If anything, a determined effort against bullying on social media should be more effective than one against bullying in schoolyards because the taunts are not whispered but posted for hundreds to see. While the fact that the taunts are public heightens the impact on the victim, it should make it easier to identify and stop the bully.

The question of anonymous abuse or libel on the internet is more problematic because anonymous utterances are more prevalent online than in the offline world. The difficulties are not insurmountable, however. If it amounts to mere vulgar abuse, anonymous online comment should be ignored in the same way we should discard unsigned letters. Where it is more sinister or even criminal there is no right to anonymity in either the online world or the offline one, and investigating authorities in criminal proceedings and injured parties in civil proceedings should be entitled to unmask offenders once they show reasonable grounds.

The struggle to balance issues of privacy and freedom of speech, and to regulate speech in the interests of public good, has already been addressed for other forms of communication in our legal system and others. With some adjustments the results can also be applied effectively to online activity.

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