A while ago I wrote an article about What not to tweet. It was a business oriented article of things which lots of businesses are doing on social media which is either not helping their campaign, or is even having an adverse effect on their campaign. This article is kind of a follow on from that. I should probably have called it "How not to go to prison over your tweets".
Recently, several of my friends and family started sharing a photo on Facebook which was starting to go viral. It was quite a distressing photo of a small dog or puppy on a vet's table with its ear cut off. The caption with the photo implied that it was done intentionally out of cruelty and gave the name and address of the person they claimed had done it.
Each time the photo was shared, there were many disgusted comments from people (and rightly so) and comments about what they'd like to do to the perpetrator if they had the opportunity.
This isn't a one off, things like this are continually going around all of the social media platforms.
If the claims are true, then what has happened is disgusting (although I'm not sure I'd condone publishing the name and address of the accused). But that is the key point I'm trying to make here...."IF the claims are true".
The truth of the matter is that based on the evidence presented, we know absolutely nothing about this case. We do not know if the claim is true, partly true, a misinterpretation of the truth, or completely made up. It would be incredibly easy for someone to find a photo of an injured animal from a Google image search and make up a claim about someone they'd fallen out with and have it spread around social media.
It is also important to realise that social media isn't governed by the laws of free speech, because it's not speech. It's governed by the laws of publishing, because that's what you're doing. And as a publisher, you are legally liable for "omissions, mistakes and transgressions". In other words, if you write, share or retweet something about somebody which isn't true, that's libel.
And also, if a court has ordered publishers to stop publishing these messages, you could also be in contempt of court, without knowing it.
We are now living in the Information Age, but unfortunately, we weren't taught how to deal with this in school. Access to all of this information that we have on the internet brings with it responsibilities. And the key responsibility we all have is to check our facts.
It's not good enough to say that you were doing it with good intentions or that you didn't know. That defence didn't work for the people who libelled Lord McAlpine on Twitter, and it won't work for you.
In the Information Age, we need to become familiar with seeing a claim, and checking up on it before acting. For those that spent most of their lives before the advent of the World Wide Web, it's going to be a difficult habit to break. Before the Web, all we had to go on was what we were told by friends. There was very little we could do to check up on our friends claims, even with an entire Encyclopedia Britannica!
But now that we do have access to all of this information at our finger tips, we need to be more sceptical about what we read and what we are told. The internet is great, but we need to stop being so trusting, or gullible.
It's very easy in the heat of the moment and in an emotionally charged situation to do something silly, to publish something we regret, but if you have access to Facebook and Twitter, you definitely have access to Google, and Snopes. There is no excuse.