Isn’t it social influence we should consider when judging people who are offensive on social media?

Sally Bercow faces legal action for naming Lord McAlphine on Twitter  At both school and university we were taught not to trust everything found on Wikipedia. Up until recently, I assumed this lack of trust represented a general consensus amongst the population. It was recently reported that after referring to the site, Lord Leveson incorrectly identified a 25-year old American graduate as a founder of The Independent in his recent. Embarrassing as this undoubtedly was for the peer, he is simply the most recent in a string of high profile individuals who have been publicly humiliated after taking information gleaned from the internet, as fact.  Social media has often taken the blame; ideas and remarks are exchanged, often much faster than can possibly be sensible so it can be difficult to distinguish between absolute truth and idle gossip.

The most high profile recent example is that of Sally Bercow, wife to House of Commons speaker, John Bercow. Sally Bercow as we all know famous sarcastically Tweeted on November 4th, ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*’.

The comment related to accusations made on a number of social networking sites that incorrectly linked Lord McAlpine to child sex claims made on BBC Two’s Newsnight. As well as being heavily criticised by the press, Mrs Bercow is now the subject of a legal challenge from Lord McAlpine who is demanding £50,000 libel damage and an apology. In less than 140 characters, the speaker’s wife has not only contributed to the mass of unwarranted negative publicity faced by Lord McAlpine, but has also created quite an unpleasant and potentially expensive situation for herself.

With social media becoming dominant on the global media stage, you only have to look to the US election to see that and how it was a key tool in the November presidential race, examples like Bercow show that something needs to be done to protect those being tweeted about – as well perhaps, as the tweeters themselves. In a country which champions freedom of speech, this is a delicate subject and a difficult one to find a solution to.

This year has seen the first prosecutions of individuals found guilty of posting offensive comments on social networking sites. In October, teenager Matthew Woods was jailed for 12 months for a number of derogatory posts about missing schoolgirl April Jones, and in September, Azhar Ahmed was given a community order for sending a ‘grossly offensive communication’. This followed the conviction of 21 year old student, Liam Stacey in March for his racist tweets about footballer, Fabrice Muamba. Stacey received a 56 day prison sentence and after the hearing, was suspended from Swansea University where he had been studying.

Although all of these cases demonstrate a lack of sensitivity to the views of others, I cannot help but feel such sentences may be a little harsh for three arguably naive men, still barely in their twenties. Stupid and insensitive actions are common amongst the young, the problem with the internet being that such comments are unfortunately played out on a global stage. Perhaps then, we should teach children in schools to be wary of what they write on social networking sites and to think before they speak.

There is an obvious difference between the case of Bercow and that of Stacey, which is the amount of reach they each have. Although Stacey is an internet troll, whose actions were annoying and hurtful, with few followers he could at least be ignored and the impact of his comments would therefore have been limited. Bercow, however had over 59,000+ Twitter followers. Just like any other traditional publication with a sizable readership, she should fact check in order to protect herself, and must suffer the consequences if she does not.

Each case dealing with libellous or offensive comments posted on social networking sites shoul be dealt with and judged separately according to the nature of the remark itself and the impact that it’s had. However legislation for social media is just as necessary as it is for the traditional press. We should start, by differentiating between those with influence and those without, whether this be by number of followers, friends or in some other way.

Although those with fewer readers can still be offensive the impact they can have, how and the mainstream media reacts, is quite different. Someone with many followers knows very well that what they say will be looked at and reacted to by thousands. Maybe it is that we should be looking at when legal judgement is passed that, or as the internet becomes ever more prevalent and comment becomes much more open, we all need to simply become more resilient.

Hannah Devoy (@Hannah_Devoy), account executive, Fourth Day PR