Arresting consequences of life with the Thought Police

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The story concerning the man who joked on Twitter and subsequently found himself under arrest caught my eye yesterday, particularly after the story a couple of months ago involving the US police officer who ordered a showbiz agent to send a tweet.

This latest incident highlighted the consequences of microblogging – not to the masses, but to a modest group of followers. More importantly, it raises many questions regarding free speech. In the case of the Doncaster tweeter, someone on Twitter apparently alerted the ‘authorities’ who turned up on his doorstep, presented him with a print out of his tweet and hauled him in for questioning.

If you have been involved in social media for any length of time, then individuals taking umbrage with something written or said is not uncommon. Often it goes under the heading ‘healthy debate’, sometimes it is just the action of a bored or malicious troll, but, whatever it turns out to be, such incidents have always been part of this eco-system.

I just wonder though, how far this type of ‘informing’ might go in the future. Does it mean that if someone doesn’t like your point of view, is completely paranoid or just up to mischief they will alert the Thought Police who will come and take you away? Should anyone be arrested on the strength of a single tweet?

And how will the shiny new cyber security agencies put such information to use? President Obama appointed his cyber security chief last May, Australia opened the doors to their cyber security operations centre earlier today – indeed, the need to be alert to cyber security was something we talked about here quite some time ago and there is no question that it is something to be taken seriously. But surely some discernment is required in the process? If not, I can see prison cells around the globe filling up with people who have vented their spleen in their status updates while those who are a real threat – and wise to the nature of social media – go about their evil business unchecked.

What happens when governments decide they don’t want to see criticism of their policies, actions and decisions broadcast widely and in a particular way? Will they police the language we use? Censorship by acceptable and previously authorised epithet? Or someone with a grudge hacks an account (corporate or individual) in order to post an incriminating status update?

From the individual’s perspective, the microblog – particularly Twitter – gives instant access to brands, organisations and leaders, proving ideal for venting frustrations in order to achieve a response when previously, none was to be had. In the case of Doncaster Man, I don’t think he was expecting a response, simply having a vent, blissfully unaware of the consequences. Nobody wanting to complete an air journey these days would dare to make such a remark while they were physically at the airport. But elsewhere? To an individual’s own circle?

I think it is a significant development as far as curtailing an individual’s ability to state what’s on their mind – as significant as the cyber-spies Google hack. Somehow, both extremes need defending if the whole thing isn’t going to kilter completely out of balance and both incidents have considerable implications for practitioners. I would be very keen to know what you think.

4 COMMENTS

  1. Good post. There’s much nonsense talked about Iran and Twitter and SM – but the truth is that everything electronic is easy to monitor and or censor. So much so in fact that such tools are virtually worthless to protesters in extreme circumstances. There’s also much nonsense talked about empowering employees – more likely to get them sacked if they state to the world what they really think about their employers and their immediate bosses stream of consciousness-style, which is how most people work through their views in the normal chaos of events.

    Then there is the issue of SM and democracy, but there’s censorship in China and very little in Russia – but there’s little use of SM in Russia as a tool of democracy and protest (suggesting perhaps that Chinese worries are over-stated and the regime has little to fear from lightening up). But whichever way you look at it, we should cut down on all this talk about any intrinsic or automatic link between SM, empowerment and democracy.

    In contrast, I say we should exercise more honesty, realism and restraint in what we say about SM. The real world is a tough place and we as communicators should tell it as it is to our audiences with a sense of responsibility and integrity. We should never lose sight of the likely consequences of over-enthusiasm and buying into myths that might result from what we advocate.

  2. This incident confirms the global stereotype that the police is usually imbecil (term whose ethimology implies being without a stick…a metafor for support…in turn another metafor for intelligence..).
    Yet, as you say Catherine, this brings up a whole can of worms related not so much to social media per se, but to our profession at large.
    The story of the showbiz agent you cite, from this perspective, is more relevant than that of the young arrested twitter … in the sense that I can recall many times in my professional career in which I would not have acted in the way I did, had I responsibly considered all the unintended (in the case at point it’s even worse because they were intended) consequences my action produced.

    Here in Italy, thanks to an editorial published ten days ago by Gianni Riotta, editor of our major financial paper Il Sole 24 Ore, on the issue of who should determine the rules of the game over web content, has sparked off a vary lively debate which continues today.
    Also the Ferpi (Italian pr association) website in its social media area is dicussing the issue
    http://www.ferpi.it/ferpinet/users/giovanni915/article_events/184.
    Specifically the subissue being discussed is if, where, when and how should a professional association of public relators do something about this.

  3. Hi Catherine — I totally agree about the need for discernment, but I think that goes for both sides. I definitely think the police should have done more upstream work before showing up on this gentleman’s doorstep, which should have allowed them to understand that it was just a bad joke and not bother showing up at all. At the same time, I think users need to come to grips with the fact that social media channels are PUBLIC, not PRIVATE spheres and temper their behaviour/remarks in consequence.

  4. I enjoyed your post on this interesting topic. I think that ‘healthy debate’ is good to have, especially on a site like Twitter. However, people definitely take the loose rules of social media too far. Although these sites are public and anyone can say and post what they want, there are always implications to what is said and people need to approach social media in responsible way.

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