We journalists have been trained in media law. We have grown to understand that we have certain influence by what is written, and therefore certain responsibilities.
But Twitter has empowered the rest of the population to express their views and shape events. Influence has shifted beyond traditional media to a more democratised concept. ‘Everyone is a publisher now’ is a common shout.
So where traditional media, such as television or newspapers, have shied away from naming an individual or company, for fear of legal reprisal, social media have stepped in to ‘restore justice’.
In 2009, when The Guardian faced an injunction for alleging energy and mining firm Trafigura had polluted the environment, a surge of comment via Twitter effectively circumvented the ruling.
On the more salacious front, in 2011, footballer Ryan Giggs tried to gag all media from naming him as the subject of a lurid affair. But with 75,000 people on Twitter naming him, Parliament ignored the injunction.
Gradually – thanks also to its role in mobilising popular uprisings in Egypt and Iran – Twitter was being accepted as ‘a force for good’.
However, recent events have forced us to rethink. Twitter outbursts from individuals – from prominent sportsmen to bedroom-based ranters – have led to fines, sackings, even imprisonment.
And then last week Lord McAlpine announced he was taking legal action against everyone who had falsely accused him of being a paedophile, following Newsnight’s flawed investigation into a North Wales child abuse scandal. The fact that his lawyers were not only going after journalists and politicians, but hundreds of normal ‘tweeters’, should be a serious wake-up call to everyone using social media.
It is not yet clear whether McAlpine’s combined legal and PR campaign to clear his name will be successful, because we’re in uncharted territory. But one senses a pivotal point in social media regulation.
For years some of us have been advising PR professionals to expand their previous focus on traditional media, to include new peer-to-peer channels, which have become adept at building or destroying reputations.
The PR profession has learned how to monitor social media conversations. It has gradually recognised how to profitably engage with digital chatter. But it must quickly learn to cope with a new legal and regulatory landscape that is emerging day-by-day.