On Monday Justice Minister Dermot Ahern announced that comments posted on social networking sites could be defamatory. The papers the following day were full of headlines that warned users of Facebook and Twitter to be careful what they said because they could now be guilty of libel.
This is all fine and dandy but for one thing. They always could be. Libel covers any defamatory material that is written, printed or otherwise permanently represented. Surely any first year journalism student could work out that just as letters, emails, blogs or graffiti can be defamatory so can tweets or Facebook updates.
We should all be aware that what we write online is no different from something written in a newspaper or set down permanently in any other way. I have to be aware that anything I write online about the trials I cover is not going to land me in contempt of court just as I have to be careful with any copy I write for newspapers, magazines or books. Defamation is no different.
I understand that there are millions of people now writing stuff online who have not been taught a basic primer in defamation law that the average journalist receives in college but surely most people have a rough idea of what libel is?
The minister’s comments at the second annual report of the Press Ombudsman on Monday evening were indicative of a widespread assumption that online words somehow exist in a special alternative reality that needs special laws and special rules. The defamation laws are not suddenly applying to stuff that has been blissfully unregulated since it came into being, they always did. If online material is permanent then surely it is covered by the standard libel definition, just as letters to a third party have always been, just as graffiti has always been and just as blogs and emails are and have been proved to be in recent cases here in Ireland.
Yes the spectacular growth of social networking has given a lot of new ways to libel people but it beats me why this should come as a shock to anyone. The idea that online communities are in some way private, or at least give that impression, is often bandied around as as reason for why people are so cavalier about basic common sense online but this doesn’t really wash. You can commit libel in a letter to your mum…if you’re talking about a third party and the letter is put lovingly away in a box. It’s the making of defamatory comments to a third party that breaks the law. That could be over the counter in your local shop (talking the old offence of slander), over a pint in your local pub or standing with semaphore flags on your roof.
We should all be familiar with the basic idea of defamation. Now we all spend so much time writing down our defamatory thoughts, rather than cheerfully slandering people with gay abandon, we all need to be more aware of libel.
It’s something that internet forums have long needed to deal with, as has anyone who has to monitor comments on a website or blog and it’s not something that only journalists need to understand.
I remember being taught media law in college. Our lecturer came from the assumption that there was a lot we would already know. When did people stop assuming that? When did people start thinking that new rules applied? There are a lot of things that do need to be looked at afresh in light of modern technological changes, things that will have to be decided in the courts at some stage because they’ve never existed before. Defamation isn’t one of them.
Maybe it’s about time that social media sites or blogging platforms started to give people signing up a primer on the legal issues they’ll be facing. It could be something you had to work through before you could finish signing up…like reading the Terms and Conditions always is.
Commentators are fond of saying that we’re all journalists now. No we’re not, but we will all need to learn how not to defame people. It’s something we should all already know. It’s hardly rocket science. The penny is going to have to drop sometime that social networks are not some magic special case where the normal rules do not apply. It’s common sense. It shouldn’t be such a big shock that it makes headlines.