Two articles caught my eye over the weekend, and got me rather worried about how traditional media and big business might be changing their approach to social media. While there have been encouraging noises made about the greater openness that social networking encourages, I wonder whether the former gatekeepers of information are quite as enthusiastic as they appear.
The first, in my local paper, was a brief piece on how the largest law firm in the city is setting up a “Cyber Tracing team” to track down people making uncomplimentary comments about their clients online and, presumably, sue them for defamation and/or libel. The second, by Jon Henley in the Guardian, concerned the people power of social networks, specifically Twitter, and the speed with which a minor incident can become a frenzy.
Now, Henley’s piece wasn’t overtly hostile, but I was left with the distinct impression from some of the quotes he cites that a number of people think social networking might actually be bad for freedom of speech. Essentially, people with controversial opinion or that rub against the liberal grain will be subject to the electronic equivalent of a baying mob, and will therefore hesitate before speaking out, if they speak out at all. Self-censorship can be as powerful as any editor’s blue pencil, and if the threat of being the subject of a Twitterstorm is enough to cow an individual into silence, that can be just as destructive to public discourse as the super-injunction that caused the #Trafigura conflagration.
At the same time, freedom of speech is done a similar disservice if you have a team of lawyers whose main responsibility is to trawl chatrooms, blogs and forums, looking for anything that might hurt their client’s feelings. As Trafigura found out to their cost, sometimes trying to shut down debate can backfire spectacularly, leaving you embarrassed and the details of whatever you hoped to cover up exposed to a wider audience than if you had simply left well enough alone. Not only that, but any battle is likely to be asymmetric: on one side a battery of expensive lawyers with the full weight of the ludicrous defamation and libel laws of the UK behind them; on the other, a lone individual with nothing close to the same resources. And I don’t think you can get no-win-no-fee deals for libel defences.
Reading the two articles on the same day, I was struck at how traditional media and companies who use the media seem to be of the mind that “something has to be done,” even as they make efforts of their own to engage with their audiences through social media. It’s almost as though, having lost the means of controlling the message, they would now rather exert some control over social media itself. The multitude of bloggers, forum members and tweeters is too immense, too fragmented to corral, so the implicit threat of legal action is used. The speed at which information can be disseminated means that traditional journalism can find itself playing catch-up, so Twitterstorms are dismissed as incoherent, messy, or simply well-meaning idiots succumbing to mob mentality.
I don’t agree with either approach. Firstly, because suing somebody who writes something you disagree with is, in most cases, using the proverbial sledgehammer to crack a nut. Secondly, because bloggers and readers who also use social media are probably better-informed than some traditional journalists think. Yes, it can seem overwhelming when an item is trending, but people do have the choice as to whether or not to retweet, or even tweet at all. Aside from the spammers, nobody has an incentive to hitch their wagon to a topic. It is the ease with which views can be expressed that has changed, not the level of engagement. Whereas previously, public reaction to a particular newspaper article may have been gauged by the number of letters sent to the editor, today people can express their opinion wherever they like, and others can chime in to voice their agreement or disagreement, without having to set up a petition or letter-writing campaign.
Change can be unsettling, and as the media landscape changes, there are bound to be more debates and arguments about the role and responsibilities of traditional media, social networks, and how people and businesses use them. While I don’t think that the internet is a free utopia where nothing bad ever happens, neither do I see it as a lawless Wild West where chaos reigns. Social networking is largely benign, provided you are willing to get involved. It’s those who are determined to keep a hands-off approach who are likely to face the biggest challenges.
[Image by KieraDocherty]