Sat | Apr 21, 2018

Annie Paul | Truth or consequences

Published:Wednesday | March 7, 2018 | 12:00 AM

In last week's column, I talked about the generalised technophobia expressed by many older media professionals some years ago during a Caribbean Broadcasting Corporation discussion on new media. I said that today, "... with the hindsight of seven years, we know that online news sources are subject to the same standards of accuracy and credibility that traditional media are" and, therefore, there was no need to be as wary of online news sources as the older heads were urging at the time.

This statement was challenged by more than one person on Twitter, and since this is a sign that others may have had the same response, I thought I should amplify my statement so that what I intended to say is not subject to misinterpretation or misreading.

The persons who engaged me on Twitter, let's call them Peter and David, both disagree that online news sources are held to the same standard as other more traditional channels of information. "What standards apply to the trolls who used FB & other online channels to spread falsehoods?" they asked..

Well, first of all, I wasn't discussing trolls or malicious purveyors of fake news, I was referring to online news sources such as On the Ground News Report, which aroused much anxiety during the 2011 CBC panel discussion, to the extent of dominating the exploration of new media in the Caribbean. The point I was trying to make was that OGNR, as it's known for short, has to meet the same standards of accuracy and credibility as The Gleaner, RJR and other reputable news sources in Jamaica if it wants to be taken seriously. If it keeps putting out fake news or unreliable informa-tion, it will lose its followership in the same way The Gleaner or RJR would if they kept making errors or putting out false information.

There is no question that social media has granted trolls and fake-news purveyors incredible licence. I've been trolled myself but put a stop to it quite efficiently by outing the troll on my blog, Active Voice. That's because I knew who the troll was and could identify her by name and shame her. In many instances, however, trolls are anonymous and difficult to track down and stop, although nowadays, the police often do have the means, through forensic examination of social-media posts, to identify the purveyors of fake news or defamatory statements.

 

Defamation and libel

 

Even the latter, that is, defamation and libel, which at the time of the discussion were considered to be exempt from regulation when committed on social media, and, therefore, extremely dangerous, are NOT exempt at all, as stringent cybercrime laws have proven, not just in Jamaica but around the world.

In the UK recently, British Conservative Party politician Ben Bradley was forced to publish an apology on Twitter for posting a tweet in which he said Jeremy Corbyn had passed British secrets to a spy from communist Czechoslovakia. This was the text of his apology:

"On 19 February 2018 I made a seriously defamatory statement on my Twitter account, 'Ben Bradley MP (@bbradleymp)', about Jeremy Corbyn, alleging he sold British secrets to communist spies.

"I have since deleted the defamatory tweet. I have agreed to pay an undisclosed substantial sum of money to a charity of his choice, and I will also pay his legal costs.

"I fully accept that my statement was wholly untrue and false. I accept that I caused distress and upset to Jeremy Corbyn by my untrue and false allegations, suggesting he had betrayed his country by collaborating with foreign spies.

"I am very sorry for publishing this untrue and false statement and I have no hesitation in offering my unreserved and unconditional apology to Jeremy Corbyn for the distress I have caused him."

This is the kind of situation I was referring to when I said that online news sources are subject to the same standards of accuracy and credibility that traditional media are.

In a March 2, 2018, Press Gazette article titled 'Tweet in haste, repent at leisure: When journalists can be liable for what others have published', the author stated:

"As a good general rule of thumb, everyone who is remotely involved in the act of 'publication' of a defamatory statement can be liable for the consequences of that publication."

Posting information on Twitter, Facebook and other social media is considered 'publication' of that information and is subject to the same laws against defamation and libel that all media are subject to. New media are no freer than the free press to invent facts or Photoshop 'reality', not without consequences anyway. That essentially is the brunt of what I was trying to say.

- Annie Paul is a writer and critic based at the University of the West Indies and author of the blog, Active Voice (anniepaul.net). Email feedback to columns@gleanerjm.com or tweet @anniepaul.