Books written by Ray Sullivan

Sunday, 18 November 2012

When Not to Share

In the UK over the last week there has been a lot of controversy that has rocked an already unsteady BBC. In the wake of the allegations against former BBC presenter Jimmy Savile of sexual abuse of minors, plus other very serious allegations, there was a BBC programme that allrged that a Nineteen Eighties politician engaged in child abuse at a north Wales children's home.

The programme didn't name names, so the specific allegation hasn't been made publicly by the BBC, but the rumours started flying around the social media sites about a specific person who has since been paid a substantial sum from the BBC in compensation for the harm his reputation has suffered.  I'm not mentioning his name - there's been enough attention on the claims which the BBC has clearly acknowledged to be untrue - and it has caused the Director General to resign in the midst of all of this.

As far as I can tell, the speculation about the name of the person appears to have been fought outside the BBC, particularly on Twitter, with a specific name ending up trending as a result.  Hence the unwarranted reputational harm that the BBC has felt the need to compensate for and allow its titular head to resign over.

Now it seems that the lawyers who are acting for the person wronged by the allegations have settled out of court with the Corporation, and the person they represent has settled for a sum that probably doesn't even start to reflect the harm such allegations can do but has been tempered by the fact that it is public money that forms the compensation.  That is very noble.

However the lawyers haven't finished, not by a long chalk.  It appears they are trawling through the many Tweets that named their client, in order to determine who did what harm to him.

You see, when dealing with defamation you have two forms.  The first is slander, where a person says something about another that is untrue and tarnishes their reputation. The second is libel, where someone or some body - such as a newspaper or a corporation such as the BBC - publishes something that is untrue and tarnishes someone's reputation. Libel is generally seen as the more serious offence as slander tends to affect a localised group and the harm can be limited.  OK, sure enough if someone bad mouths a colleague in front of their boss and the statements are untrue then that can have serious consequences for them, so any subsequent slander case could result in major damages.

But libel tends to allow an untruth to permeate further, to reach deeper and cause more harm that is longer lasting.  So the interest in the Tweets should be making a few people a little nervous.  In fact, more than a few as to get a person's name to trend it takes an awfully large amount of Tweets and Retweets.  Which means that while only a few people may have made an incorrect link to the upcoming BBC documentary, or perhaps may have been leaked information that has not subsequently been substantiated - after all, the BBC clearly agrees it has done something wrong here, and as they didn't screen the documentary it must have been something that they allowed off air - they did so  to sufficient numbers who probably retweeted glibly to their own list of followers.

There could be some serious ramifications of this analysis by the lawyers, because I'm certain they're not doing this as a technical exercise.  If this ends up with people in court defending their Tweets and Retweets we could see a sea change in the usage of social media - don't forget that Facebook has just launched the Share function which allows FB users to redistribute posts to all of their Friends.  As a minimum, users of Twitter and Facebook should think carefully before posting or reposting allegations about a person - most of us are not going to be in receipt of the facts of these cases and it is all too easy to get carried away with the call for blood that we're witnessing over in the UK right now, and it could cost individuals a lot of money if they contribute to defaming a person's reputation by the simple act of pushing a virtual button.

Long term this could be seen as the point that social media grew up and started to understand its social responsibilities.  Take care when Tweeting, Retweeting or Sharing.


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