In the latest on the debate on Twitter and Freedom of Speech, the Speaker’s wife Sally Bercow’s comments about Lord McAlpine on Twitter were ruled as libellous by a High Court Judge on Friday. It made me think about whether we should all be careful about what we post on social networking sites or whether our Freedom of Speech is being slowly strangled by our politically correct legal system.
You can’t blame the Courts for being stricter after the whole business of the Leveson inquiry and of course, with the current Jimmy Saville investigation, there is a constant battle with the media and defamation. However, when it comes to personal opinion, do they have a right to silence us within the confines of cyberspace? After all, it is social media and by monitoring our activities online, is that bypassing the whole point of its existence?
What got me thinking the most this week about social media and freedom of speech was the horrific murder of soldier Lee Rigby in Woolwich by two Islamist terrorists. I first heard the story on Twitter (like many breaking news stories) and I commend social media for playing its part with instant, up to date news. However with news and reports comes opinion and comment and while I agree that last Wednesday’s events were atrocious and sickening, social media allows itself to become a bandwagon which snowballs like Chinese whispers. The Facebook statuses and tweets were endless streams of rants, which gave both the EDL and radical clerics like Anjem Choudary, more fuel to spout their vile beliefs instead of our nation coming together to fight the war on terrorism.
Social media appears to have given people more bravado to express their opinions and while of course, everyone is entitled to their own opinion, some of the things I have seen and read over the course of the last week have made me wonder whether people have read the news in depth and whether they are genuinely expressing their own views or if they are just jumping on the bandwagon. A 22-year-old man from Lincoln was arrested following his offensive comments on Facebook about the attack while two others from Bristol were held under the Public Order Act for their malicious and racist tweets. These men were not under the scrutiny of the public eye like Sally Bercow but it shows how you can still get caught out among the masses on the Internet.
I shall put this debate in another context, how many of you have tweeted after a bad day at work? Or how many of you are drunk in your profile picture sitting in a trolley or wearing a traffic cone on your head? This is your social persona, I hear many of you cry and while I agree that we all have two personalities for our professional and personal lives, employers are using social media more and more to look up potential candidates. With that said, more firms are using social media to promote their business and if you’re applying for a Social Media Management role and you’re tweeting inappropriate comments left, right and centre, that doesn’t put you in good stead. Similarly, if your profile bio states that you’re a “complete lightweight,” you might find yourself being told to work overtime on admin duties at the office while everyone else is at a networking event with free bubbly.
Over the last few years, we’ve seen several cases where people have been fired from their jobs because of offensive and inappropriate remarks posted on social networking sites. In 2009, a woman only known as ‘Lindsay,’ was sacked after expressing her hatred for her job on her Facebook status and accusing her boss Brian of being lecherous towards her, forgetting that she had him added as a friend on there. In another incident, 16-year-old Kimberley Swann, from Essex, was fired from her job after deeming it to be “boring” on her Facebook page while Paris Brown’s comments on her Twitter page in the past came back to haunt her. The 17-year-old stepped down from her role as Britain’s first youth police and crime commissioner after complaints that her messages, which she posted on the site between the ages of 14 and 16, were claimed to be homophobic, racist and violent.
The way we get information and news is evolving all the time and while our opinions and comments are not splashed all over the tabloids, with a click of a button, we can see what everyone is thinking and doing minute by minute, 24 hours a day. One of my university lecturers always told us to think of our online persona as “a brand,” one which we can promote to potential employers and he reiterated the importance over and over again of being aware of what we post on our blogs and social media. Privacy settings are there for a reason and while it’s absolutely fine to be controversial every now and again, it’s not worth losing your job for. While freedom of speech over social media allows us to come together and be a buzzing, interactive community, at the same time, it can be a cyber playground for mischief and malice to run riot.