I had the great pleasure of featuring on the panel event, Social Media, Politics & Protests at University of Ulster on social media and civic change on December 10 2013, organised by (@ornayoung). Alan in Belfast (@alaninbelfast) covered the event on Slugger here. Alan in Belfast also has audio here and here. Images from the day here.Tweets from the day via Storify here.
The TCD Social Media panel which preceded this event in October 2013 can be seen here. See my discussion with Sharon O'Neill of UTV on social media law here.
Below is a paraphrased account of my presentation from the UU event:
1. Overview of social media and the rule of law:
"In the last decade we've seen a creative technological explosion. Technology is ubiquitous. Technology has penetrated into every corner of life. It's power lies in the freedom it gives people. The freedom to build and maintain new and old relations, create businesses and overthrow tyrannical governments.
But this is a two-pronged freedom. Social media gives the freedom to do great good. Social gives the freedom to do great bad. By that formula, social media is both a criminal weapon and a weapon of mass reputational destruction.
As a criminal weapon, this has been demostrated in the Ruth Patterson case were she was arrested and charge with sending grossly offensive messages. I wish not to prejudice that case, as judgement is still outstanding but this demonstrates how the criminal law will react. The #TwitterJokeTrial also demonstrated the potential for social media to be a criminal weapon, although the accused and convicted was later vindicated. Liz Bingham and a 16 year old Scot were both arrested for tweeting grossly offensives sectarian messages about the victims of the Clutha Bar helicopter crash.
As a weapon of mass reputation destruction under the civil law, this has been demonstarted by the Sally Bercow, Lord McAlpine case which I covered here, here, here and here. I covered David Aaronovitch here who wrote in response to the Bercow ruling that Twitter was "inherently dangerous."
How has the law responded to these challenges? It's a balance of freedoms. On the criminal law it's a balance between free expression and protecting public order. The Director of Public Prosecutions Keir Starmer QC and the CPS have published social media guidelines which in the words of John Cooper QC amount to "common sense."
On the civil law it's a balance between free expression and a person's reputation. The Bercow case told us that social media has made publishing vastly easier, not responsibility free. In the words of George Monbiot, you need to "think before you tweet."Further reading on social media and the law here.
2. Social media and the rule of law in Northern Ireland:
Social media has given people the freedom to be more sectarian. Sectarianism had grown a new head through social media
I gave the figures here for those arrests made since 2009 which have involved social media. I explained the approach of the PSNI which you can read about here. I gave the attitude of politicians in Stormont who are keen to regulate, however that is a reserved matter, not devolved (read about that here). I explained the attitude of the courts, where Justice Mark Horner has said that people "use social media at their own peril"(also covered by Olivia O'Kane here and TJ McIntyre here). I explained the attitude of the Northern Ireland Public Prosecution Service who are to publish bespoke prosecutions guidelines for Northern Ireland.
I summed up the first to points by saying that we need to educate not regulate. I also said that Twitter says that it is of the free speech wing of the free speech party, adding that we must not clip the wings of social media, it is only in its infancy.
3. My view on Loyalists Against Democracy:
LAD walk with a breastplate of satire. Stalk with a blade of irony. They Balk at sectarianism. That is their enemy and they make no sectarian exemptions. They are an equal opportunities satirist.
LAD is the sigh of the long silenced, censored and muzzled moderate. For years they couldn't say anything, less they be snobbish, less they be assaulted. Vaclav Havel called his movement "the power of the powerless." Through social media they are the frustration of the empowered.
LAD is entirely peaceful, non-fanatical. They cross their arms, hold up a mirror and throw a knowing smile.
Loyalists says they are offended. I welcome their offence. For too long they've been unoffended.
Loyalists make grand claims and world arbitrary power. They are accountable to no one. LAD gives an opposition and resistance. By that measure they are a public good.
I submit to the audience that it is not bullying or snobbish to name and shame people like Liz Bingham who ask if Catholics died in the Clutha bar, call Mandela a monkey, threaten Bob Geldof and incite people to break the law.
4. I talked about political correctness as the worst kind of censorship:
I've been talking about freedoms and it merits examination to look at the freedoms of the muzzled moderate.
There is an urge to censor an shutdown any criticism loyalism deems unwelcome whether thorough the law, political correctness or intimidation.
The standard dismissal is that criticism is snobbish.
Comes from liberals like Ed Simpson. This is a failure on their part to stand and fight movements that are sectarian and illiberal. This is not a recipe for pluralism - this is the exploitation of pluralism for use against this very principle.
Loyalists whitewash their responsibility by smearing people like me. By these formula, they are beyond reproach. There is no such thing as loyalist exceptionalism. They have no special privilege in society.
By this formula, the extremists have the whip-hand and you can say nothing."