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The Law and Social Media

Updated on October 3, 2012
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This is something I wrote ages ago and then half forgot. Now that I’ve joined HubPages, I think I should put it on here for the world to read.

Ched Evans
Ched Evans | Source

I worry about how the law can be enforced in the age of Facebook and Twitter. It’s so easy for people to break the law and so difficult to catch them. It’s a little difficult to explain, but if we have a think about the Ched Evans thing, we might be getting somewhere. Certainly, that’s what started this line of thought.

If you don’t remember or didn’t hear about the case, I’ll give you a quick explanation. So, this footballer, Ched Evans, got a woman insanely drunk and raped her. He was, quite rightly, convicted and sent to prison (though, oddly, his friend also had sex with the woman and was not convicted. I don’t know why, but that’s a discussion for another time). Anyway, there were - perhaps unsurprisingly and rather depressingly - quite a few of Evans’ fellow footballers and his fans who were angry that he was convicted. Many expressed online their anger at Evans being convicted. They called the victim a slag and a tramp, and plenty of other stuff that’s unprintable, not to mention sickening. Of course, one has to wonder what’s happened to society if people have that attitude to rape. However, that’s really a discussion for another time.

Clayton McDonald, Evans' friend and co-defendant. Somehow, McDonald was not convicted.
Clayton McDonald, Evans' friend and co-defendant. Somehow, McDonald was not convicted. | Source

What is almost as disturbing as the reaction to the verdict is what happened next: people who knew who the victim was started naming her. They were going on sites like Facebook and Twitter and telling people who she was. Now, I should first make it clear that this is illegal; rape complainants are granted lifelong anonymity under the Sexual Offences Act. This is, I hope you’ll agree, a good thing. Would you want your name in the papers, being identified as a rape victim? Probably not.

And a few years ago, you’d have had your anonymity; no paper or news channel would have broken the law and put a person’s name in the paper without permission. But it’s not that simple anymore. Now we have the internet which allows any idiot to have his or her views seen by the rest of the world. Or at least the 3 billion or so people connected to the internet. And that’s wonderful. It is, really.

Unfortunately, the internet allows anybody to say anything they want. Anything. And no-one can stop them, without knowing in advance what they plan to do. And once something is on the internet, it’s there forever. Well, it’s there until there’s a massive operation to remove all trace of its existence, which can be done with enough time and money. But you can’t do much about it once it’s off the internet. Once it’s onto someone’s hard drive or into their head, you’ll never get rid of it. And therein lies one of the tricky problems exposed by the Ched Evans case. The second someone named the victim, that was it. They broke the law of course, and they will be punished for that, but the damage can never be undone. No-one who saw the name can choose to “unsee” it. It’s remarkably easy to destroy anonymity, but it's impossible to repair it.

So what am I actually getting at here? To tell the truth, I don’t really know myself. I suppose I’m worrying. Worrying that I might live in a future where anyone with a computer can break major laws and - potentially - get away with it, because it’s tricky to catch someone who doesn’t want to be caught, especially where cybercrime is concerned. That thing about Ched Evans was just example. The point is that there is a problem. Either:

  1. The methods of enforcing the law are not modern enough to effectively police a society which is increasingly connected by the web. Or
  2. The law is not fit for purpose in the age of the internet, in the age of Twitter and Facebook and Tumblr and all the rest of it.

Think before you post something that will ruin someone's life and land you in court.
Think before you post something that will ruin someone's life and land you in court. | Source

Now, at the end of the day, the law doesn’t stop bad things from happening. Not on its own. It simply outlines the punishments applicable to certain crimes, and that is what should stop people breaking the law. And law is only ever as strong as its enforcement.

Personally, I don’t see a future in changing the law to keep up with technological developments. Obviously, it needs to be done to some degree as new technology opens up legal loopholes, but I think we need to get away from the idea of needing new laws to police the internet. The people abusing or naming the rape victim on Twitter could be prosecuted under, for example, the Public Order Act 1986 - an act made before the internet era. If those tweets and been spoken rather than typed, they would have clearly broken that law, along with one or two others.

And yet, for whatever reason, it’s not the same on the internet; people who break the law don’t think it counts, and those who see the law being broken think that you can’t possibly charge people because most laws were written before the internet and Facebook and Twitter.

This, I think, is where the problem lies: people don’t seem to understand that the web is just an extension of the real world and the same rules apply.

Thank you for taking the time to read this hub. I hope you found it interesting. If you have any questions or feedback, please feel free to leave a comment below.

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    • Nesbyte profile image
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      Nesbyte 4 years ago from UK

      Hi, kathleenkat, thanks for commenting. No, I've never read it, but I'll be sure to check it out.

      By now, it's somewhere around the 950 million mark, which is rather terrifying. That's a "nation" with a population of almost 1 billion. And it doesn't even exist.

      With great difficulty, to answer that question. That is, of course, assuming it's possible and that there is sufficient will to do it.

    • kathleenkat profile image

      kathleenkat 4 years ago from Bellingham, WA

      Funny; I have just started reading "I Know Who You Are and I Saw What You Did" by Lori Andrews. Have you ever read this? If not, I think you will find it interesting.

      Facebook truly is a nation of it's own. In the book (which was written over a year ago) it states that Facebook has enough members to be the third largest nation in the world (how large is it now?).

      How do you govern a nation, which consists of members from dozens of nations?

    • Nesbyte profile image
      Author

      Nesbyte 4 years ago from UK

      @Gamerelated

      You're quite right; in fact, it's really always been down the people themselves. Unless the majority of people *want* to be decent, law just doesn't work. What's scary is the fact that the number of people who want to be decent seems to be going down. And as it goes down, there's less social pressure, as you put it, to do right rather than wrong. And so fewer people behave decently and so on and so on. It's a vicious circle.

      I think you're right social control being the answer in cases like this. I just don't see how stricter laws will change anything. Of course, that opens up a whole other can of worms - the people being policed by the people seems a little Orwellian. It's a problem, to be sure.

      I read something a while ago about how anonymity affects people's decisions. I'll try to find it again. The jist of it was that people tend not to be so cautious when they think they're anonymous. They tend to care less about what they say. There's nothing wrong with anonymity, but as you said, people abuse that power. and you know what they say about power and responsibility.

      I'm glad you think so, and thank you, especially since you took the time for such a detailed comment.

    • Gamerelated profile image

      Gamerelated 4 years ago from California

      In the society of our ancestors there weren't any laws, police, or prison. Yet people found a way to mostly behave themselves. Modern society is much larger and more complicated. As social norms failed to prevent people from doing harm to one another and to society, we started to create institutions to solve these problems. Institutions such as law, police, and prisons.

      However, there will never be enough prisons or police to control everybody. What keeps most people in check is a sense of decency and a sense of what is right and wrong. On top of this sense of right and wrong there is social pressure to behave yourself. Sometimes acting like an idiot is not against the law but it doesn't make your behavior acceptable to your peers and this is what keeps people from causing harm in the absence of a law that prevents it.

      In this case that you are writing about there are already laws to prevent people from revealing victim identities, but as you mention the law is difficult to enforce and enforcement doesn't undo the damage therefore prevention should be the focus.

      Since the law is ineffective in this case I would say that some form of social control would have to supplement the law to prevent people from revealing victim identities. If people know the person that is revealing the victims identity then perhaps people close the offender should encourage them to stop or possibly they should reveal that person's identity publicly in order to show that person what it feels like to be "outed".

      A lot of misbehavior on the internet is due to the amount anonymity people enjoy on the internet. Anonymity allows people to misbehave without facing any consequences both socially and legally. This leads to a lot of trolling and law breaking.

      I don't have a problem with people being anonymous as I write under a pseudonym myself, but I am against people using it to do harm. I don't have a problem with people outing somebody that is breaking laws as that will lead to at least some form of social enforcement. This is a great Hub. Good work on this one.

    • Nesbyte profile image
      Author

      Nesbyte 4 years ago from UK

      You're absolutely right. It is really sad that there si a lack of simple things like politeness on the internet. It goes back to what I said in the last paragraph: "the web is just an extension of the real world and the same rules apply." It's getting better though. Sites like HubPages which rather impose a certain civility will hopefully get more people into the habit of treating the internet like what it is: a public place filled with real people.

    • Lwelch profile image

      Lena Welch 4 years ago from USA

      It isn't just legal issues. There is no etiquette online. So many people will say things to people that no one would dare say to someone's face. Also, people will go online to argue with a person or company rather than handling it privately. People think it is fine to make a YouTube video and post it when they have a fight with a spouse or child. We also see a lot of trolls, both for and against arguments, on bulletin boards or in comments. Being politically correct seems to be in and polite seems to be out. Being right and having the last word is in while having tolerance is out. Tolerance and polite behavior are in my mind much better than being politically correct as it is voluntary. It is a shame that it is a lost art.