Social media developments have legal implications and require a new literacy

By MARK PEARSON

Every new development in Internet and social media communication renders countless new people ‘publishers’ –  exposed to risky media law situations they might never have anticipated. 


Advances in communication technology in this new millennium have redefined the ways in which most of us share news and information. Industry upheaval and technological disruption have prompted many journalists to retool as bloggers, public relations consultants, multimedia producers and social media editors.

These roles add exciting new dimensions to journalism and strategic communications—including conversations and engagement with audiences and instant global publishing at the press of a button. But they also present new legal risks that most professional communicators – and even ordinary citizens – did not envisage in the twentieth century.

The changes have been so profound that they have impacted the ways we live and organise our lives and work practices. It is only when we review some of the milestones of the internet and Web 2.0, together with the legal and regulatory changes they have prompted, that we start to appreciate the need for all professional communicators to be knowledgeable about media law.

While the worldwide connection of computers, giving rise to the phenomenon we know as the internet, dates back to the early 1980s, it did not start to impact the lives of ordinary citizens until the mid-1990s. Melbourne’s Age newspaper became one of the first in the world to offer an online edition in 1995 (van Niekerk, 2005). Over the ensuing years, entrepreneurs started to embrace the commercial potential of the World Wide Web, just as consumers began to use it to source products and services, and students began to engage with it as an educational tool—predominantly from their desktop computers.

By the end of 2016, there were approximately 13.5 million internet subscribers in Australia (ABS, 2017). It was not until August 2003 that the first major social networking platform, MySpace, was launched in California. It was the leading social networking site in the world from 2005 until 2008, when it was surpassed in popularity by Facebook, which by 2017 had almost two billion monthly users, including 15 million in Australia (Media Watch, 2017). In the six months to June 2016, 93 per cent of internet users aged 18 to 24 used social networking sites (ACMA, 2016:  58). Streaming of entertainment and news has also become part of daily life.

In June 2016, 39 per cent of Australian adults had watched Netflix in the previous seven days, while 27 per cent had watched professional content on YouTube and 16 per cent had viewed the pay television service Foxtel (ACMA, 2016: 82). In the United States by 2017, six out of ten young adults were primarily using online streaming to watch television (Rainie, 2017). Associated with this was the remarkable uptake of the mobile telephone and other devices. The iPhone was only launched in 2007, but by 2016 more than three-quarters of Australians owned a smartphone (ACMA, 2016: 18). The iPad was born in mid-2010 into a market segment that many experts thought did not exist, but by 2016 more than half of Australians used or owned a tablet device (ACMA, 2016: 55).

Even more technologies are unfolding rapidly, with implications for both the media and the law, with the increasing use of drone devices for news-gathering purposes and the awe-inspiring Internet of Things (IoT), where everyday devices are all interconnected, offering novel news-gathering and delivery systems for the media but also complex legal ramifications—particularly in the realm of privacy and security law.

Governments, courts and other regulators have been forced to decide on the various rights and interests affected by these new media forms, and some of their decisions have taken private enterprise by surprise. It is a far more difficult task, however, to educate the broader community about social media legal risks.

The core message is that we are all publishers in the eyes of the law when we publish a blog or post to a social media platform, and in that role all citizens are subject to the same laws that have affected journalists and publishers for centuries.

Further, the instantaneous and global nature of the media means that we may also be the subject of foreign laws of countries other than Australia—particularly if we work for a multinational corporation, or choose to travel to, or have had material we wrote downloaded in, a place where our posts might have broken the law or infringed upon someone’s rights. These laws include defamation, contempt of court, intellectual property, confidentiality, privacy, discrimination and national security.

All this makes a strong argument for greater social media literacy among professional communicators and the wider community.

[Excerpted from Pearson, M. and Polden, M. (2019, 6th edition, forthcoming). The Journalist’s Guide to Media Law. A Legal Handbook for Digital Communicators. (Allen & Unwin, Sydney).]

References

Australian Associated Press (AAP) 2017, ‘Changes to media ownership laws’, SBS, 14 September, <www.sbs.com.au/news/article/2017/09/14/changes-media-ownership-laws>.

Australian Bureau of Statistics] 2017, Internet Activity, Australia, December 2016, cat. no. 8153, ABS, Canberra, <www.abs.gov.au/ausstats/abs@.nsf/mf/8153.0>.

Australian Communications and Media Authority] 2016, Communications Report 2015–2016. ACMA, Sydney, <www.acma.gov.au/theACMA/Library/researchacma/Research-reports/communications-report-2015-16>.

van Niekerk, M. 2005, ‘Online to the future’, The Age, 28 January, <www.theage.com.au/news/National/Online-to-the-future/2005/01/27/1106415726255.html>.


Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

© Mark Pearson 2018

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Filed under blogging, defamation, free expression, journalism, journalism education, media ethics, media law, mindful journalism, online education, reflective practice, social media, terrorism

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