Sunday, 29 May 2011

Brave or Stupid?

South Tyneside Council has made the news today, having forced Twitter to hand over the details of a user who has, allegedly, libeled three Councillors and an official.

Coming hot on the heels of the Ryan Giggs superinjunction affair, this is a noteworthy development which will clearly have an impact on the use of social media. But, once we have allowed ourselves a wry smile at a small, English local authority beating the expensive solicitors who have so badly advised Giggs to get the information they were seeking, we should ask whether South Tyneside have done the right thing? How will we reflect on their action in a few months' time?

When I was communications manager at Sheffield Wednesday, we had ongoing issues with a number of fans who were posting abusive and, yes, libellous messages about our chairman and others on a public message board. The case even ended up in court before being resolved.

There were three main reasons why I argued that the most useful course of action for those who were offended by the posts was simply not to read it.

First, the practicalities. Is it really feasible to monitor all the social media outlets available, 24/7, just in case someone has a go at you online? Even if it is possible, is it right to spend all that time and money on an extreme form of media monitoring? Isn't it better just to get on with the important tasks at hand, instead of being diverted by your critics - which after all, is what they want to happen.

Second, as Giggs found out to his cost, once you take the legal route, public interest grows exponentially. How many people knew, or cared, about these South Tyneside tweets before today? No one? A handful? Now, you can be sure, there are thousands of people out there looking into the Council's frankly petty goings-on.

Finally, once you've found out the user details of the person who has libelled you, what do you do next? Write to them? Ask them to stop? Sue them for all they're worth? Spending yet more time and money on lawyers, gathering evidence, further monitoring - "less than £75,000" according to South Tyneside's spokesperson, so far.

This is the thing - whatever the Council gets out of this data, it's going to be at the cost of its reputation. At the very best, they are going to be seen to be wasting thousands of taxpayers' money on a petty squabble, at a time when they are cutting services and making people redundant. Even worse, if they continue to pursue this action, they will be seen as the big, bad Council, bullying the little man with the full weight of their local Government armoury.

I suspect South Tyneside won't be the last organisation to go down this route, but it's not one that I'd advise. Surely it's better to keep your head down, get on with your vital work in these tough times, and avoid presenting yourselves as a vindictive bully? If you don't like it, just don't read it.

1 comment:

  1. In general I think you are right. In a short time from now there could be thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of libels out there, most of which will be heard by nobody and which would cost millions to try and combat.

    In the long term the ISPs and the platforms may arrive at a challenge system which restores some sanity (but hopefully not too much control).

    However, for the time being I think people and organisations need to consider the impact of a comment. If a newspapers libels somebody it is worth pursuing them because they are still believed to be true by many people. If a solitary blogger/tweeter say something, then it is often best to ignore it, only if it is being re-tweeted, re-posted or passed on is it even worth considering. If someone is not reaching an audience then taking action against them is likely to spread it furhter, before South Tyneside took this action most of the UK had never heard of it, now some of their councillors are nationally famous!

    Of course, the world is even more complex if what is said is partly or largely true, which might be the case in some of the footballer and banker stories, but then suing is just plain daft in this day and age.