You Are What You Tweet

What do you tweet? What you had for lunch? What you think of the X Factor? Or the name of a suspected paedophile?

Once upon a time Twitter was used to follow celebrities’ every move or to rant about subjects deemed too trivial to qualify a Facebook status. Now the website’s user-base has stretched beyond the limits of bored teenagers, turning it into a serious journalistic tool. So does this mean that the rules of the newsroom now need apply to tweets?

The relation between media law and Twitter has been a controversial topic since its inception in 2006. Now that the Leveson Inquiry is underway, the social media site may finally have to stop acting the petulant teenager and take some responsibility for its content. As the Guardian (@guardian) succinctly tweeted: “one Twitter click- and it’s so easy to destroy someone’s world.”

The Sun Editor, Dominic Mohan, spoke at the Leveson Inquiry of the need for a “level playing field” between the internet and other forms of media. This would mean toughening up laws regarding defamation, contempt, libel and sharing the details of under 18s and victims in court cases in relation to tweets. Already there have been cases where tweeters have been prosecuted for such offences. Earlier this month, nine people were ordered to pay the rape victim in the Ched Evans case £624 each for naming her on Twitter and Facebook. This is thought to be the first case of a member of the public being charged with naming a rape victim: the fact this happened over social networking sites highlights the legal minefield they pose.

It could be argued that many users are unaware of the significance of their actions. Making derogatory comments about someone is defamation; most would feel they are just expressing an opinion. There is a fine line here and it can be hard to tell when it has been crossed. I searched the name “Rylan”, this year’s love/hate X-Factor contestant and found countless offensive tweets. My favourite has to be from @JPO_9- “Just seen the thing that is (why am I even giving this time?!) Rylan. Why has no one thought to microwave it!?!?!” This may have been intended to be funny but would more stringent regulations mean comments like this would be on shaky ground?

Of course, the more prolific you are, the more likely what you tweet will come back to haunt you. Such was the case when Rio Ferdinand (@rioferdy5) responded to a fan’s tweet calling Ashley Cole a “choc ice” with- “I here you fella! Choc ice is a classic hahahahahaha!!” Was this intended to be racist? Unlikely. But the surge of press coverage this response received proves how careful those in the public eye should be when using social media. Ultimately, whatever you tweet is on the record and the media can- and will- use it.

The most recent controversy regarding what can be tweeted is in relation to the Jimmy Saville paedophilia reports. Philip Scoffield, in a contentious move on TV show This Morning, presented David Cameron with a list of other potential paedophiles he had found in just three minutes of trawling sites such as Twitter. There is an echo here of the super-injunctions palaver. This centred on Ryan Giggs (I couldn’t find his real Twitter account, if he has one), who arrogantly took out a super-injunction to prevent the world hearing about his affair with Big Brother contestant, Imogen Thomas. Giggs couldn’t gag hundreds of tweeters though; his name was leaked and the world knew of his dirty laundry, even though the press was forbidden from reporting it.

In my opinion, Giggs deserved to be named and shamed. But there were myriad other celebrities who were also named, some falsely. Jemima Khan (@Jemima_Khan) said she received “vile hate tweets” after she denied taking out a super-injunction over details of an affair with Jeremy Clarkson.

The main issue with information being leaked on Twitter is that once the damage is done, there is very little to do to reverse it. When the subject matter is something like the celebrity super-injunctions over their naughty antics, it is hardly disastrous that such information is shared with the public but innocent people can be involved, potentially ruining their lives. Many Twitter users would likely think twice before being so careless if they were using any other type of media.

It is not just illicit news that spreads on Twitter; the rest of the media is increasingly turning to social networking to find out about stories quickly. There is the chicken and egg effect, where a story that is in the news may trend on Twitter but at the same time journalists will be looking at trends for stories people are clearly interested in. We cannot ignore the increasing role of social media.

So what do ordinary Twitter users think about whether there should be more stringent regulation of the site? I asked my followers to share their opinions using the hashtag #twitterandleveson. There was support for both sides of the argument. @beccaabarrett tweeted- “Social media is a large part of everyday life, media law is failing society if it doesn’t now cover twitter and facebook” whereas @Houdeanie7 argued- “Extending media law into the realms of social media would only lead to an influx of ultimately pointless arrests”. I think both points are valid. Social media has proved to be more than just a fad and deserves to be taken seriously. However, its primary use should not be compromised by strict rules and regulations: it exists to allow people to share their opinions and it must continue to be an outlet of self-expression.

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