The rise of social media over the past five years or so has presented a wealth of opportunities for individuals, companies, government agencies, and organisations of all shapes and sizes.
As with any emerging and constantly evolving marketplace or industry, though, the lack of official rules and legislation regarding the social web has resulted in a few sticky situations.
Take the most recent example of Liam Stacey, a young lad who probably assumed that nothing would come of a couple of extremely offensive racist remarks on Twitter made whilst Bolton midfielder Fabrice Muamba was fighting for his life less than a fortnight ago. Fast forward not even two weeks, though, and Stacey has been left facing the prospect of a 56-day prison spell. Stacey’s case is not an isolated one; just cast your mind back to the comment tweeted by a certain Paul Chambers in 2010. It seems unlikely that when Chambers tweeted in frustration “”Robin Hood Airport is closed. You’ve got a week… otherwise I’m blowing the airport sky high!”, he had no idea that just weeks later, Stephen Fry would be offering to pay his legal fees, and thousands of other Twitter users would join together to retweet the original comment to highlight the pitfalls of how to judge whether or not a message posted online in a moment of apparent jest is “menacing” and worthy of a conviction. It seems clear that we haven’t quite got it right yet in terms of deciding how best to vet online spaces, and how much data, and of what sort, is morally, and legally, right to analyse. Interestingly, yet predictably, there has been more public outrage this week after the FBI announced their plans to develop an early-warning system that will use “mash-up technology” (which would scrape data from the likes of Twitter and Facebook) to make judgements regarding possible domestic and global threats. According to the FBI, “social media has become a primary source of intelligence because it has become the premier first response to key events”, but such a proclamation has done little to quieten the voices of those who believe that freedom of speech online is once again being placed under serious threat. As well as these concerns, critics have also expressed anxiety over FBI agents becoming bogged down in data and apparently significant information from social networks, which actually ends up being little more than everyday internet interaction. Ultimately, whatever can be done to make societies safer and more secure is clearly a positive thing; it just remains to be seen whether the likely hundreds of thousands of social network users who are critical of the app (if it does come to fruition) can restrain themselves from “doing a Paul Chambers” to make a statement en masse.
Charlotte is chief whip when it comes to making sure words are in order at ICS-digital. You can get in touch with her directly at firstname.lastname@example.org