Social networkers in Britain may soon be afforded greater protection from online trolls on social media networks through legislation being tabled in parliament. British police have rejected calls for new laws to govern how the police deal with the abuse of Twitter, saying that problems may eventually be resolved by the microblogging website itself.
In internet slang, trolls are people that “post inflammatory, extraneous, or off-topic messages in an online community, such as an online discussion forum, chat room, or blog, with the primary intent of provoking readers into an emotional response or of otherwise disrupting normal on-topic discussion”, according to Wikipedia.
The proposed new laws in Britain try to address this issue, which is ultimately one of defamation (or libel). Defamation is the intentional and wrongful publication and communication of words or behaviour to a third party which has the effect, objectively viewed, of injuring a person or entity’s reputation and arises from the right to a good name or reputation held by all individuals.
The defamation law tries to protect one’s reputation, which in the modern world of the internet and social media, are easily injured leading to the developments in Britain of new laws.
Social networks provide a platform for individuals to speak their minds without accountability for what is said whether it be false, offensive or defamatory. I am not talking about airing your opinion or views on a subject, but in serious cases where an individual has deliberately created a false or offensive, defamatory statement about another.
What this new legislation will do is remove liability from website operators and place it directly on the ‘trolls’ themselves. Website operators will have a defence against defamation so long as they identify those who post defamatory statements when requested to do so. The idea is that placing the responsibility on the operators of, for example, Twitter and Facebook for individuals speaking their minds on their sites with no thought or care on how their words are damaging is absurd. These operators will have a defence so long as they disclose the identities of the trolls in order to allow the complainants to take appropriate action. It is uncertain however, how these website operators can ensure that personal information provided is truthful.
Society has lost the element of common decency and respect for one another, organisations and individuals are using social media as their competitive and often childish playing ground and I don’t believe that we can cry ‘freedom of expression’ when one’s reputation is at stake. I believe the introduction of the new laws will take us back to some level of tolerability?
It is difficult to determine whether legislating this will put an end to online defamation and whether those who speak their minds too freely will think twice knowing that they may be held accountable for their actions, or in this case, their words. It is clear however that some standard of protection is needed to protect individual and corporate reputations.
Perhaps something more along the lines of an authority such as the Advertising Standards Authority in South Africa would be more accessible for many who would lodge complaints against the trolls since law enforcement is a lengthy and costly process. Think of people who post defamatory comments being taken to task within days for these alleged defamatory or racist comments that would take months if not years to enforce in South African Courts of Law.
South Africa will hopefully take a page out of Britain’s book in developing a strategy to deal with this very real problem by balancing the right to freedom of expression with the right to protection of reputation. We can only hope that a more accessible system will be put in place which will allow the average person to protect their reputation. Reputation is after all your most valuable asset which requires nurturing and the utmost protection since fixing it once broken is a task none of us wishes to endure in our lifetime.
Janine Lloyd is managing director of Livewired PR, a member of the ForeBrands Integrated Marketing Communications Group.
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