Belfast Telegraph

There's an anti-social flaw at large in social media

By Philip Hensher

This week, I left Twitter. It was not a big deal - I'd been on it for three months, mostly to see how it went, and only had a few hundred followers. And then I didn't really like it.

I quite enjoyed seeing big news stories unfold in hundreds of comments. But in other ways, it didn't suit me.

And I couldn't work out what one was doing, really. Was it a conversation? Or was it a sort of newspaper? Was one publishing one's thoughts - or just talking loudly?

This fundamental dilemma about social media was surely at the bottom of the wavering discussion about whether the Government should have the right to turn off social media during periods of disorder.

There is no principle of free speech that applies here. Free speech, in the classic definition, does not allow somebody to shout 'Fire' in a crowded theatre. Similarly, no law of free speech would defend someone from publishing the time and date of a proposed looting session.

If it were printed in a pamphlet and handed out in a shopping centre, then there would be no hesitation about confiscating it and preventing further distribution. A person addressing a crowd to the same purpose would soon attract the attention of the police.

And a proposed crime may override any right to privacy in a conversation, if it seemed likely to wreak major catastrophe. If we overheard two people talking quietly about a plot to bomb a train, then I don't think we would respect their privacy.

Short of that, some notion of privacy might kick in - I doubt any policeman would arrest two teenagers overheard planning a shoplifting expedition, rather than wait until a crime was actually committed.

But, even in the most serious cases, if would-be terrorists were plotting over the telephone, would we take away their telephones? If we knew that such conversations were taking place, or likely to be taking place, would we close down the whole telephone network? Why blame and punish the medium of communication?

Last week, politicians were suggesting that social media should be shut down in extreme circumstances. The Government was quick to point out that it did not have such powers and would not be seeking them.

And yet the question hangs in the air. If major criminal activity is being planned on Twitter or Facebook, what is to be done? Is our model here a publication inciting mass violence, which should probably have an order placed on it? Or is it merely a conversation in a public place, where, in the interests of privacy, the forces of law and order should wait to see whether it is just loose talk?

The users of Facebook and Twitter were absolutely clear that they were conducting a private conversation among their friends and peers. Those who maintain public order were equally pretty clear that what they were dealing with was the online equivalent of an anarchist pamphlet.

The scenario before us - a frightening or inspiring one, probably depending on your age - is that these social media are not a conversation. Nor are they a publication. More alarmingly, they may not even be something between the two states. They may well be something entirely new.

It is for all of us to work out what that may be - psychically, personally, communally. As our confused lawmakers are discovering, we are also going to have to discover what that 'something new' means in terms of law.

In the meantime, we can always remember that we don't have to be on Twitter, you know.

Popular

From Belfast Telegraph