Social Media – With great power comes great responsibility.

Social media is dynamically changing the way in which we share an opinion and advocate a cause.

Social media puts us all within easy communication of each other. Allowing us all to share our opinions, be read and heard, social media gives an equal voice to everyone.

With great power comes great responsibility – is a quote from an old Superhero Comic but it was never as true as it is now in this Social media driven age of high-speed internet communications.

Indeed it is the Antidote to the frequently touted mantra – ‘It’s my social media channel, I can say what I want. It’s freedom of speech’.

As Individuals, industries and institutions wrangle with the complexities of social media, social media continuously presents us with new ways to entertain, publish, govern, communicate, buy, swap, sell, find love and wage war. We are engaged in a very public and dynamic relationship where we must continually redefine and upgrade our definitions of human communications.

It is well to note that in these times of continual change we are best to proceed with a duty of care in mind and respect for each other if we are to avoid the lower end of the spectrum of human emotions.

Rules of engagement …

Free speech is a precious gift, and the ease with which anyone can comment on any topic is a liberating part of democracy. Mobile devices and social media now make this even easier for us to access topics of interest, to create content and share commentary. However, Free speech has boundaries under Australian law including, libel, defamation and contempt of court.

Frequently people confuse their right to free speech via social media with what is legal and may inadvertently break the law with their online commentary. This is particularly true during a criminal court case. The Contempt of court laws uphold the right to a fair trial for all and a Judgement can only be passed based on the evidence heard in court.

All traditional journalism commentary and reporting follow strict procedures so as not to break this law. Journalists understand these restrictions and have legal advice as part of their publishing process, but the public does not.

The capability of anyone to publicly comment online places everyone’s right to a fair trial at risk. Commentary like, ‘Catherine is definitely guilty. Hope she gets a massive jail sentence when her trial starts next week #throwawaythekey’ is common. Individuals post via their social media accounts, bypassing newspapers, radio and television requirements, without understanding the unintentional impact of their actions.

Not only do these inadvertent comments made through social media interfere with a person’s right to a fair trial, but they may interfere with the efforts of peacekeepers to bring criminals to justice. In some cases, a case could be thrown out of court due to the external interference from social media interfering with the rights of a fair trial leading to a miscarriage of justice.

Social media investigated …

Launching an inquiry this month, the UK Attorney General is calling for evidence to judge the impact of social media on criminal cases. In recent years, several high-profile cases were abandoned because abusive and threatening comments made via social media prejudiced the opportunity for a fair trial.

In Australia, the horrific rape and murder of Jill Meagher by Adrian Bailey in 2012 are similar to the high-profile criminal cases in the UK and the public’s use of social media. The level of social media engagement around this event was unequal to anything seen in Australia. Tracking the online commentary, researchers believe the ‘…potential negative impacts of social media … and the right to a fair trial was intimately played out in the Meagher case through social media engagement’. Adrian Bailey hate pages and Facebook’s initial refusal to remove them resulted in warnings from Victoria’s Attorney General and a suppression order from the magistrate on publishing commentary which could compromise a fair trial.

So what motivates people to persecute others online?

In general, humans are capable of seven basic emotions – fear, anger, disgust, contempt, joy, sadness and surprise –four of which have negative associations. When encountering a horrific report in a newspaper – fear, disgust, contempt and sadness will be the overriding emotions. Combine these negative emotions with a drive to make a difference or to support a cause, and people will comment on social media, seeking self-fulfilment and validation of their emotional tide whether it is legal or not.

Social media connects us in many positive ways, but it does not replace a face-to-face conversation. Using mobile technology dehumanises our communication experience to some extent, separating us from the direct emotional impact of face-to-face interaction.

Social media reduces the intensity of a communication particularly one where conflict may arise; it allows enough emotional detachment to avoid seeing the negative impact our comments may have had on the psychological well-being of others. Also, there is little no accountability for the people’s negative behaviour online, making it easy to be antagonistic.

In a positive way, social media is empowering; it provides a platform of speed and reach to voice an opinion or to convey critical information.

Who watches the watchers – social media – the highs and lows?

Social media is redefining the way people interact and how people organise themselves. People will come together online to meet a particular need and will repurpose social media to meet this need whether it is socially acceptable, legal or otherwise. In this way, social media and mobile technologies continue to present challenges and opportunities.

Social media has led to many contentious issues being highlighted by their conduct, and so individuals, communities and our institutions must question social media’s role in undermining or upholding values vital to a healthy functioning democracy, like freedom of speech and the right to a fair trial.

Many of the large social media technology companies have resisted efforts of the courts to curb inadvertent interference with court cases by removing specific media from online. The technology companies are not clear as to why they refuse to remove the specified material, but their cooperation would go a long way to resolving many of the current issues. Social media companies have become a part of the regular media landscape but are relatively free of the restrictions imposed on newspapers, radio, television and journalists reporting and commenting on real-life situations.

Our challenge, as a society, in addressing these questions, is to decide what is up for change and what is sacred and must be left alone; in pursuing justice online, we should not unwittingly deconstruct the very framework which allows our laws to be justly upheld.

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