29 May

Tweets Gone Sour? Gossip, Social Media and the Law

Posted By Politybooks

First posted 6th June 2011

Here are two recent cases involving the new forms of social media – those Internet-based media (Facebook, Delicious, YouTube) that facilitate conversation and networking with content provided by the users. In the first case, a married, world-famous British football player allegedly has a seven-month-long affair with a former Big Brother housemate. The affair ends and the player takes out an injunction preventing the housemate and a tabloid newspaper from revealing his identity. However, a user of the social media site Twitter names the player in a tweet and soon his name is all over the ‘Twittersphere’. Suspecting that the original culprit is a journalist trying to get around the injunction, the player’s solicitor demands that Twitter furnish them with the identity of the whistle-blower; Twitter considers it. Meanwhile, in the House of Commons no less, a Liberal Democrat MP, John Hemming (we can name him), uses the device of ‘parliamentary privilege’ – which allows him to name names with legal impunity – to name the player in the Commons. As newspapers are allowed to report on all matters in Parliament, the cat is well and truly out of the bag and the player is named.

In the second, lesser-reported tale, an English council, South Tyneside, took legal action in California (the home of Twitter) in relation to an anonymous blogger, ‘Mr Monkey’, who had allegedly made libellous statements of drug use, sexual activity and corruption about three councillors and a council official. The council says it took the action because it has a duty of care towards its employees and seeks to defend its own interests. Are these everyday stories of twenty-first-century celebrity and public culture? Maybe, but they also show us something of the ambiguous character of the new social media we all think we understand so well.

What these cases show is that there is no agreed, widespread interpretation of what the status of social media like Twitter or Facebook really is. Twitter users often describe their activity as a modern version of the very ancient art of gossiping over the garden fence or down the local pub. If so, then trying to prevent online gossip through legal means is just as likely to succeed as barristers trying to intervene to prevent my neighbour leaning over the fence on a Sunday afternoon to tell me the local ‘news’. Indeed, as a season ticket holder at the football player’s club, I and several hundred, maybe thousands of other fans had heard the sorry tale a long time before it made the Twittersphere. This was but via the more usual avenue of fans and stewards gossiping about ‘seeing him out with her’ or ‘hearing it from a reliable source’ close to the player. This genuinely is gossip – passed on from person to person, usually through face-to-face communication, though these days also via mobile phone calls or text messaging. This method is still quite slow in spreading the news and the veracity of the information remains unconfirmed at best.

However, things are quite different with social media. Once the football player was named on Twitter, the information spread rapidly and an estimated 75,000 people tweeted the player’s name, many in protest at the legal request for the original whistle-blower to be named. This was Twitter’s ‘I am Spartacus!’ moment. Social media are different from gossip in other ways too. Twitter, for instance, operates through written content and is therefore not directly comparable with old-fashioned gossip delivered through speech. Posting messages on Twitter is closer to writing an open letter to a newspaper or sending an email to everyone in your and all your friends’ address books. Because it’s written down, it may also be considered differently in law. The offence of defamation is slander when spoken, but libel when written down, for example. It appears that legal systems are currently running behind popular interpretations of social media as purely gossip forums, and may even be at odds with the views of social media users. More clashes between the two appear inevitable.

What was the response of Twitter to these two cases? In the first, the player’s legal bid was made in England not the US, which meant that Twitter did not have to provide names and identities. However, if the request was made in the US then Twitter admitted it would have to co-operate with the request. So far, a pragmatic acceptance of reality and the need to start burying the story seem to have prevailed. Twitter’s European head, Tony Wang, also warned, at a meeting of the e-G8 forum in Paris, that the site would hand over information when required by courts and that users would have to defend themselves if they broke privacy injunctions.

In the second case, the council’s request for the blogger’s identity was accepted and Twitter did release the information, though it forewarned one suspect, giving them 21 days to lodge a legal argument against the action before releasing their details. Twitter provides a platform for social networking and ‘gossip’, but don’t expect it to fight your legal cases. Google’s annual reports show that it also receives literally thousands of requests from agencies in the USA, UK and elsewhere for user data, such as IP addresses, email addresses and mobile phone numbers, though these do not attract much interest in the press.    

There is a simple conclusion to be drawn: social media are part of, and not separate from, the rest of society. This is such a trite sociological proposition that it may seem unnecessary. However, the experience of using and being part of social media can convey a feeling that these sites are global, open communication spaces that exist outside or beyond grounded social reality in some totally free, open cyberworld. Yet of course, the servers that host the sites really do exist physically within nation-state boundaries and are subject to the laws that operate in those national contexts. I am reminded of a comment made by one of my old lecturers during a discussion of virtual worlds and the advent of virtual reality suits, helmets and gloves that allow people to see and experience virtual reality scenarios in real time: ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘but all I see is a person moving around wearing gloves and a hat.’ In short, the virtual world depends for its very existence on the ‘real one’.  

Chapter 18 The Media is the obvious place to explore these issues, though Internet use is also covered on pp. 854-5, and social interaction in cyberspace on pp. 324-7. Facebook features on pp. 858-9, and information technology and social change on pp. 128-34.


For an interesting and readable study of Facebook and the roles it plays in contemporary social life, you might be interested in taking a look at Daniel Miller’sTales from Facebook. You can see the author introduce the book here.

Philip W. Sutton