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"Half Of Twitter Users Risk Jail Every Day" and other Fairy Stories


By Steve Kuncewicz

December 29, 2011 | 7 min read

The Christmas break’s a wonderful time to get a little perspective on any number of subjects - the meaning of life, your place in the world, what it all means and any other number of issues that won't seem anywhere near as important when you're back at your desk in the New Year.

Take, for example, the Daily Mail. Much-maligned as it may be amongst those of us who may like to think we know better than to believe some of its more Bill Hicks-baiting headlines, such as the classic which suggested that striking teachers were indirectly responsible for the death of a student who had the branch of a tree fall on her when she should have been in school last summer, it still commands a pretty large (if shrinking, along with most other print newspapers) circulation.

That circulation brings responsibility – you’d think that now would be as good a time as any to get some (enforced) perspective on that responsibility and redefine it where necessary in the light of the phone-hacking scandal and the Leveson enquiry, but this kind of thinking didn't seem to be bothering Paul Dacre’s staff too much yesterday when it ran a typically carefully-balanced thoughtpiece under the headline:

“More than half of Twitter and Facebook users risk jail EVERY DAY”.

Now, this isn't a piece that may attract any attention from Leveson as it doesn't deal directly with the main issues making headlines during his enquiry such as phone hacking and the routine harassment of celebrities or public figures, neither of which the Mail has yet faced any substantiated allegations of, but what it does drag to the front of your mind is the issue of press ethics and the accuracy of stories.

I’m not talking about stories which deal in celebrity tittle-tattle or mindless trivia here. This story ran with a headline that's substantiated with the following bullet points before the main text of its article:

“More than two-thirds would upload copyrighted material to the internet.

More than half couldn't identify a defamatory statement.

A third were unaware that organising looting via Facebook or Twitter was illegal.”

Taking each in turn, copyright infringement doesn’t usually lead to a criminal offence unless it involves "making or dealing in an infringing article” or “making an article designed for making copies of a copyright work” and even then only tends to end in prosecution in instances of commercial-scale DVD piracy.

Uploading copyright content is usually dealt with by way of a threat of civil copyright infringement proceedings and as of yet we haven’t seen many cases against individual uploaders in the UK save for MediaCAT's disastrous attempts to pursue members of the public on the basis that their IP address may have been used to download Cascada songs or porn earlier this year. The Courts were not impressed. No-one went to or risked jail. Some users of Twitter might do if they really are involved in copying on a large scale and yes, file-sharing does constitute infringement and is a bad thing, but I don't see your average student ducking to avoid an armed team of Police swinging into his hall of residence any time soon for file-sharing one or even ten songs from any Band, even if they’re one of Simon Cowell’s.

Illegal downloading is a problem - it does make it hard to make money from music in the amounts that the industry used to, but much of the problems come down to advances in technology and an old business model in need of updating. Education of the downloading public will help to solve it, NOT scaremongering – that went out with the old "Video Piracy Is A Crime” trailers appearing on VHS Cassettes. It CAN be a crime, but your average Twitter user is not a criminal or at risk of becoming one.

Onto defamation, then. Yes, it's a problem. Yes, defamatory statements, i.e. statements which "lower the reputation of the subject in the eyes of the ordinary reader” are made every day on Twitter and potentially to a much wider audience than may read them if made in the printed press. Yes, we have seen the first "Twibel" case fought between two MPs earlier this year which led to an award of damages at trial. Cricketer Chris Cairns brought a case over a Tweet which contained allegations of match-fixing this year which the Defendant failed to have thrown out on the basis that so few people saw it – he had enough followers for the case to proceed.

Reputation is made and destroyed over the social web in a matter of moments and the number of defamation claims involving social media is rising all the time. None of these cases have involved anyone going to Jail.

Finally, let’s look at the most serious issue - many Twitter users didn't realise that criminal offences committed using social media would be punished in the same way as offline content or even that the use of a social network could constitute a criminal offence.

Bingo. Referring back to the Riots and the sentences handed out (and confirmed at appeal) over incitement to riot using Facebook to organise looting and anti-social behaviour and the risk of Contempt of Court over reporting the details of a superinjunction (possible in theory if the user can be shown to have known the terms of the Court Order involved and breached it), this is where the piece comes dangerously close to being factual.

There are a raft of criminal offences which involve the use of Social Media, such as misuse of an electronic communication system to send messages of a menacing or threatening nature, harassment, incitement to racial hatred, sending a “malicious communication” and transmitting obscene material.

Some of those responsible for such offences have gone to Jail, and many have been convicted. They are a minority, and they have been traced through their online footprint. Many didn't realise what they were doing was illegal. These are good points, and made in both the article and in the research to which it refers. The public does need to get to grips with the fact that what they do online is punished in the same way as it is offline. What they don't need is to read this kind of inaccurate headline. They may not know that what they're doing is wrong, but even if half of Twitter's users behaved in an illegal way, can the Mail really claim that they’d all risk Jail? What if it was a first offence? What about the actual offence which they commit?

Generating an audience through fear is nothing new, but in an atmosphere where the Press is asking itself some pretty searching questions about how it deals with the Public, this kind of headline is irresponsible at best. Yes, there is a risk here and yes, some Twitter users could go to Jail. Educating them as to the limits of acceptable and legal behaviour is one thing, but trying to “scare them straight” doesn’t work and is in any event the Government’s responsibility, not the Mail’s. Even if it were, the Mail would also still have an equal responsibility to run headlines which put across a balanced comment on this kind of issue. In this case, they’ve ignored it in the same way as the Twitter users they claim are at risk of incarceration.

Just like the Twitter users they refer to a “risking jail”, they should know better.


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