Social Networking on Trial

Posted: 2012-11-19 09:14:24

social networking in spiders web

There has been quite a stink on social networking sites in recent weeks where some over keen users have been caught spreading malicious rumours about an ex Conservative Party chairman. Twitter seems to have been the main source or driver of the allegations.

It's an interesting one this. Who do we blame the tweeters or Twitter itself? Twitter is after all the publishing medium, if this were a newspaper crossing the line the newspaper itself would be held culpable and sued, prosecuted, or otherwise persecuted.

Twitter is different in that it is an international medium which in our world currently seems to mean taking no responsibility for any of its users' actions at all.

It is also hugely powerful and as Spider Man's uncle said - "with great power comes great responsibility".

A Force For Good?

As we have seen in the Arab Spring, Twitter can be a great force for good, as indeed can other social networks, but when there is nothing serious to say then it is easy for users to fall back on gossip and Twitter is, amongst other things, a mega gossip medium.

Gossip can create binds between individuals, which is why we do it, but it can also be destructive and malicious. When combined with anonymity, gossip can be very destructive indeed.

It was a little surprising in the latest furore to find well known individuals, with large followings, whipping it up and there was more than a hint of political schadenfreude driving that I think.

They all seem to be sorry now they are facing a law suit; they may or may not be sorry that were naming the wrong person in the first place we will never know.

Above all, this case, once again, has demonstrated the power of the social network and with great power great responsibility does come.

Responsibility means recognising the laws of the countries your business operates in and the fundamental principle that everyone is innocent until proven guilty.

A medium that allows a lynch mob mentality to run riot and ruin someone's good name before any real evidence has been presented does not really serve its users well.

In time it will poison its own reputation and erode its essential user base as people with reputations to protect withdraw from the crowd.

In this instance war has been declared on the individual tweeters by the wronged individual who has the personal resources to hire a team of lawyers to hunt the relevant people down and make them recant, apologise and, in many cases, pay compensation.

When this happens to an ordinary person without those financial resources (and contacts) to fall back on, what happens then? 

Does Twitter care and do we care?

Twitter should take this issue seriously. Its Terms and Rules clearly prohibit "Violence and Threats" and other illegal activities, but stops short of prohibiting unsupported defamation.

Twitter users might like to ask similar questions about themselves and whether given the power of the medium at their fingertips, they should also be responsible for doing the right thing - whether they are using their real name or not.

However, given a general reluctance of individuals to take their own responsibilities seriously, perhaps this issue needs to be addressed more intelligently by Twitter and other social networking websites.