Social Media Sites: Too Fast For the Law

Joey Barton

by Richard Lutz.

Flicking through the papers, two separate stories intertwine with intriguing results: how Twitter has crumbled and allowed censorship in creepy places such as China. And how the Attorney General has seemingly grown cold on taking on the e-company and Joey Barton over possible court contempt blogs.

Both display how technology outstrips law. It just moves too fast. Its speed makes it close to uncontrollable. Digital communications seems to control itself. It is, in effect, a law unto itself.

The first story: Twitter announced late last month it would OK censorship in order to respect local law. In other words, it has bowed to thuggish regimes such as China. Thailand, not exactly a land with a clean as a whistle human rights, jumped in and endorsed the decision to allow country-specific blacking of content.

Now Twitter, Facebook and other social sites do spew out a lot of garbage but with this communication detritus does come the shreds of free speech. The above mentioned nations don’t like this. In order to keep the peace (and a chunk of financial e-life) Twitter has agreed that the two countries can wipe clean anything it doesn’t agree with.

George Orwell couldn’t make it up. Or if he did Twitter would probably ban him from its site if it was beamed to China.

Now to Barton. To recap: Maverick bigmouth QPR player Barton has made (ahem) ‘robust’ comments, according to reports, about the John Terry forthcoming race trial. There were warnings that his meandering thoughts, whatever they are, could prejudice a fair trial.

But they were on Twitter and no one knows how to control cybercomms yet. The Attorney General’s office has now said it won’t pursue a contempt case. Basically, no one has yet tried to apply contempt to the all consuming Tweetworld. And the Attorney General looks as if he is not yet ready to roll up his sleeves and take on the unfettered lands of Twitter.

So, what do we have in the rampant world of social media? On the one hand, cyber-organisms such as Twitter and Facebook will kowtow to thuggish regimes if it makes commercial sense. But in open cultures, it lets all kinds of potentially illegal and prejudicial nonsense spew from its innards.

Even powerful law experts seem unable to control the social sites. They control themselves. And often decisions are not very pretty when it comes to free speech.

This two pronged dilemma highlights what  sociologist Kurt Lewin referred to as The Gatekeeper Theory. He coined the phrase back in the prehistoric media times of 1947. Basically, both the media and public relation arms of companies use self censorship willy nilly for a alot of different reasons to stop the unchained flow of information, he said. It may be a lack of space (in the print world), a lack of time (in the broadcasting world),  corporate bias (as in the Daily Mail or The Sun) or just personal choice. All information is controlled by institutional gatekeeping.

And though Lewin wrote back in 1947, his theory holds sway today. Twitter controls its gates whenever it wants. And that must go for Facebook, Google and other mega sites too. Technology makes its own rules. It is too fast for the law.