Think before you post online - Keith Roulston editorial
If you’re making New Year’s resolutions and you’re a user of social media, I hope you’ll resolve to use these powerful media responsibly in the coming year.
Social media can become dangerous when people use it to spout off without first thinking things through or finding out the facts. A good example happened back before Christmas when some people attacked North Huron’s firefighters for being greedy because they went on strike. The strike had nothing to do with firefighters’ pay at all but was about a breakdown in communications, but thoughtless posts
spread untrue opinions.
Small towns have often been knocked as places where gossip can spread quickly, but with the internet, the world is a village. If we gossip across the back fence, over a table at a coffee shop or around the water cooler at work, any information exchanged and opinions expressed have a limited range. Thoughtless or incorrect things we say can only spread so far before they die out.
Unfortunately, people tend to treat social media the same way they do a conversation among friends. It’s not. Social media is actually more like a radio station or a newspaper. It has the ability to spread misinformation far and wide. To make a very local comparison, it’s as if you took something you heard from a neighbour and shouted it in a crowded town square.
If you demeaned someone in that town square, you’d better be prepared to prove what you said was true because the victim can sue you for slander. So far, in the wild west world of the internet, the same rules don’t apply.
Until recently I sat on the board of directors of a sort of co-operative insurance company that provides libel insurance for Canada’s community newspapers. Every year we’d have to pay for lawyers to defend publishers and the staff of a handful of newspapers that had slipped up and printed something that someone felt had libeled them. Often it was just someone who was angry about some story they didn’t like and they had no legal case, but the odd time, we’d have to pay out substantial damages.
Our jobs as directors became more complicated as we tried to move with the times and insure newspapers for what they posted on their websites or publishers who only distribute their news online. Our greatest fear was those publications that allowed readers to post responses online. Often these are full of rage and untruth, the kind of thing that would be edited if it arrived in a letter to the editor, but was unmediated on the internet.
The bewildering thing for us was that rules of libel and slander that apply to newspapers and radio and television stations so far haven’t applied to the internet – except to websites that could be identified as part of a newspaper or traditional news provider. A newspaper might get sued for the same comment on its website that went unchallenged on Twitter, Facebook or someone’s personal blog.
Society has, to this point, bought into the argument of companies like Facebook and Google that they aren’t publishers, in the way newspapers are, but simply conduits allowing individuals and companies to send their own messages to other individuals. It’s been highly profitable. Facebook has no cost of creating content, as do television stations or newspapers, yet they collect nearly $1 billion a week selling advertising – and they argue they have no responsibility for anything they help to spread.
A recent newspaper article, noting that Facebook is now 13 years old, compared the company to a teenager who likes having the freedom of growing up but doesn’t want to have to accept the responsibility that comes with it. But the days of freedom from responsibility may be ending for social media companies. The manipulation of American voters in the 2016 elections by Russian agents spreading fake news and ads through social media caused U.S. Senators to call top officials of Facebook, Twitter and Google before a special hearing last fall. Lawmakers want to force these, and similar social media companies, to take more responsibility for what they transmit.
Sooner or later the courts, too, must start acting to protect individuals from libel and slander on the internet, just as they have for a century in traditional media.
Meanwhile, we’re living in the same sort of circumstances Americans have with guns, where the gun lobby argues “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” It’s left to us to be individually responsible.
Social media can be a power for good, spreading inspiring stories or seeking help for people who need it. Unfortunately, it also has the power to do great harm, spreading hateful or untrue opinions. You have the responsibility to use it only for good. Think before you rush to post something on the internet.