Leading by bad example: What Peaches Geldof’s tweets teach us about breaking the law online
By Alex Ward
Surely 140 characters seems harmless enough and yet the things that people say on Twitter still seem to be leading the likes of Peaches Geldof astray. Last week she caused a stir and a police investigation for naming on Twitter two mothers that allegedly allowed their babies to be raped by Ian Watkins, the Lostprophets singer who admitted to child sex offences.
While it took some hours before she realised her mistake, the flames of controversy were already fanned. Geldof removed her tweets and apologised ‘for any offence caused’. She wrote that she would ‘check my facts’ before posting such information again, done on the assumption that the names were public knowledge, she claimed. She topped it off with: ‘The babies will most probably be given new identities to protect them from future abuse from other paedos.’
The attorney general’s office also took to Twitter to make clear – again – that the victims of sex offences are entitled to ‘lifetime anonymity’. In a statement they said: ‘Publication of info which could identify them is a criminal offence and a police matter.’
In one way it seems scarily absurd that Geldof’s tweet, a quick flurry of thumbs on her Smartphone sent out to her 160,000 followers, could lead to prosecution and potential jail time, and yet on the other hand it also seem incredulous that she would not be aware of the legal pitfalls of social media, which have been well documented in the headlines in recent years.
Just last week a man was given a 14-month suspended sentence for tweeting a photograph which he claimed was Jon Venables, the convicted killer of two-year-old James Bulger who was given a new identity after committing the crime in 1993 at the age of just 10. In a statement the attorney general said: ‘It gives me no pleasure to bring a case for breaching this injunction and I do so purely in the wider public interest. The order has been in place for many years and applies to both media organisations and individuals. It is meant not only to protect Venables and Thompson but also those members of the public who have been incorrectly identified as being either of them.’
While media organisations have long been held accountable for these indiscretions, it seems individuals are not so aware of the consequences and as social media use continues to rise, the necessity to know the legalities behind communicating online is also growing. Especially when some of these individuals have hundreds of thousands of followers, if not millions, hanging on to every word they write on their Twitter feed.
Just like celebrities, journalists are also upping their game on social media and so it is imperative that we all consider the legalities of what we can and cannot do on social media.
Let’s have a look at some:
**Defamation – Refers to the issue of a false statement which damages the reputation of a person, business, religion, government or country. Lord McAlpine, who was wrongly called a paedophile after a BBC Two Newsnight investigation, settled libel action in the high court against Sally Bercow after she repeated the allegations on Twitter. Defamation has also caught out plenty of employees who have bad-mouthed their bosses on social media and led to many a dismissal. Good to also note that employment tribunals will support the firing as fair game if the company has a social media policy in place.
**Contempt – To be in contempt of court is to disobey a court order. In 2011, thousands of people on Twitter named Manchester United player Ryan Giggs as the star fighting to stop the media publishing details of a sordid affair. The judge decided not to take action against some 75,000 people who named the footballer on Twitter and press freedom campaigner and MP said it was ‘obviously impractical to imprison them all’.
**Incitement – Is the encouraging, instigating or threatening of another to commit a crime. The UK riots in summer 2011 were believed to be ‘made worse’ through the use of social media platforms such as Twitter. Two Facebook users, who tried unsuccessfully to start a riot via the social networking site during the turmoil, were sentenced to four years in jail. A judge rejected their appeal calling it ‘the abuse of modern technology for criminal purposes’.