Downing Street Affair: How Social Media Lost its *Innocent Face*

By Steven George-Hilley

steven george-hilley

The social media revolution has empowered millions of people across the globe, providing a platform for instant interaction and content sharing in real-time with vast online communities at the touch of a button. It has also fundamentally changed the traditional approach to news gathering with media outlets geared towards securing front-page scoops accompanied by a big splash online. It is no surprise that given the assumption that social media discussion is difficult to regulate, journalists are increasingly running stories on those ‘who cannot be named for legal reasons,’ knowing full well that the Twittersphere will fill in the gaps.

Notable examples of this journalistic technique in action included the string of super injunction stories which ran throughout the summer of 2011. In many cases, the strict court orders prevented the media from naming or even providing basic details of the alleged incidents in the print or online, but it wasn’t long before the rumour mill kicked into action on an array of obscure blogs and subsequently spread further via thousands of Twitter users. Presumably, the assumption to those breaching the well-publicised injunction was that there were simply too many people to sue.

Ironically, two years beforehand, we were treated to the first ever injunction served via social media by solicitor Donal Blaney, who handed papers via a direct message to an unidentified user impersonating him online. This was an example of legal proceedings adapting to their time, with digitised papers served online via email, there was no reason why social media channels should be excluded, particularly when the complaint itself was centred on Twitter.  Bizarrely still, during the summer of super injunctions, speculation was rife that Twitter’s US origins meant that it was impossible to sue, completely overlooking the fact that many of the users breaching the order were based in the UK and had UK IP addresses.

The notion that large volumes of users breaching a court order or defaming an individual would prevent costly legal action was finally exploded last year during the McAlpine scandal, which gave us our first dose of micro-litigation for each and every user who made false allegations online. This incident proved beyond reasonable doubt that a careless tweet can be a very expensive business, but don’t take my word for it, ask Sally Bercow.

Anyone who woke up to and read the Mail on Sunday’s super splash entitled ‘No10 Rocked by Secret Love Affair’ will have seen the surprising lack of detail contained within the story. The paper cannot talk about the duration of the alleged affair, cannot name the individuals involved and cannot provide any additional context other than that the Prime Minister was ‘stunned’ when he found out. Rewind back a few years and your average news editor would consign a scoop like that to the waste paper basket without a second thought. But in today’s social media age, anonymous stories trigger so much gossip, debate and speculation online, the return on investment through online traffic outstrips the fact that the story appears to be lacking some of the basic ingredients to be a success.

Steven George-Hilley is director of technology at Parliament Street

Follow Steven George-Hilley on Twitter: @StevenGeorgia

One Comment

  1. Michael Ross says:

    Jurisdiction, aye… that’s the elephant in the room that’s far too rarely discussed whenever there’s a moral panic over some Twitter or Facebook comments.

    What’s the *point* in prosecuting Brits for tweeting the name of a rape victim, or naming someone contrary to an injunction, when none of this applies to the other 98% of the internet population who *aren’t in the UK*? They can and will continue to tweet and comment with impunity.

    The law is a long way from catching up with the facts on the ground, and the inevitable result is that everything will have, perforce, to move to the lowest common denominator – in this case, the USA, with it’s relatively absolute freedom of speech, protected by the first amendment.

    If it can’t be spoken in the UK, it most certainly can in the USA – and to resist this is what I refer to as ‘Canute Syndrome’.