Think before you Tweet!

(You can follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter by clicking here)

As children we were all raised by a simple maxim: “think before you speak”. It’s simple. Engage your brain and your cognitive faculties; think about the potential outcomes of any verbal communication and make an informed judgement.

All done within a split second, this simple social norm has saved us all face and a whole lot of botheration. However, for whatever reason it may be, this time old maxim is lost on people when it comes to the digital communications on Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

 

This deficit of understanding is causing a whole load of trouble. Firstly, social media users are continually finding themself in hot water, facing punishment on criminal and libellous charges.

Complaints to police about alleged crimes have rocketed in recent years. In England and Wales, 4,908 social media offences were reported to the police in 2012. While only 556 offences were reported in 2008.

Northern Ireland hasn’t escaped the huge rise in social media offences either. In 2012, 2,887 social media offences were reported to the PSNI, while only 73 offences which were reported in 2010.

As a result of this phenomenon, the police are facing a new and very real challenge.

The solution to the problem is not exactly simple. As we’ve discussed before on this site the Director of Public Prosecutions for England and Wales, Keir Starmer QC has issued interim guidance which maps out the decision making process which should be used by authorities to decide when persons can be prosecuted for social media misuse.

On this: short term, Chief Constable Matt Bagott has explained that Northern Ireland authorities are happy to use the England and Wales Guidance. Long term, the Public Prosecution Service in Northern Ireland is considering producing a bespoke policy document specific to Northern Ireland.

At home the former president of the Northern Ireland Law Society, Imelda McMillian lamented the public’s patent lack of understanding on the matter. The Law Society’s prognosis for the problem is simple: a joined up approach that informs and educates people.

As for turning the Law Society’s rhetoric into reality I’m almost certain nothing has been done, which in itself is lamentable.

Looking past all the white papers, black letter law, formalities and rigid prescriptions, there’s possibly a simpler answer to the problem.

That’s the lesson we can draw from the Lord McAlpine affair. This is the affair during which former Tory cabinet member, Lord McAlpine was grievously libelled across Twitter when false allegations were made that suggested that the Tory peer had abused children during the Jimmy Saville scandal.

In the wake of these events, Lord McAlpine’s legal team have taken robust action and have pursued damages for libel. A number of monetary settlements have been agreed to date including a standout arrangement with Guardian columnist, George Monbiot who has agreed to do charity work over the next three years to the sum of £25,000.

George Monbiot who had over 55,000 Twitter followers during the affair hinted through tweets that Lord McAlpine was the person discussed in the Newsnight investigation into child abuse in North Wales.

On drawing the lesson learnt from the whole escapade, George Monbiot laid out a common sense maxim by which we should all live. He said:

“Check your facts and think before you tweet!”

The whole world of social media is a fascinating topic. It’s in constant flux, growing and evolving day and daily. However it cannot be allowed to evolve into a lawless place that encourages public disorder of the digital kind.

That said, an over-enthusiastic response in the form of legal control or censorship is not the answer to the social media question. Free speech, while not absolute is to be cherished and guarded passionately.

We the public need to understand that we cannot tweet or communicate on social media with impunity. If you wouldn’t say something offline, then you shouldn’t say it online. It’s simple: think before you tweet!

(You can follow Brian John Spencer on Twitter by clicking here)

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