Welcome to my first social media round-up for 2016. As usual, during the last couple of months there was no shortage of weird, sometimes disturbing, and wonderful social media tales from around the world.
At the extreme end of social media, abhorrent social behaviour, crime and punishment play out before our eyes on a daily basis, which can colour our perception of the medium unfavourably.
However, we must keep in mind that social media is a communications and story telling broadcast medium. As such, social media is merely a reflection of the society we live in, admittedly laid bare, warts and all, for all to see. The media will usually skim up only the stories that are salacious and disturbing, or involve celebrities. But remember, for every such story on social media, millions of brilliant conversations and new human connections are made across the world every day.
Social media can be a useful tool in creating social awareness about harassment and violence, and this month there is even a case of an unsolved murder unravelling thanks to a police social media campaign.
One celebrity story earlier this month also served as an educational tool in the social graces for 17-year-old online film critic Jackson Murphy, who found fame through his ‘Lights Camera Jackson‘ website, and the world’s social media users at large.
Jackson was invited to the Critics’ Choice Awards, with his father, where they met the comedian Amy Schumer. After the encounter Jackson tweeted a picture of them together with the comment ‘Spent the night with @amyschumer. Certainly not the first guy to write that.’
The tweet was deleted soon after Amy Schumer responded: ‘@LCJreviews @jondaly I get it. Cause I’m a whore? Glad I took a photo with you. Hi to your dad.’
Apologies then followed, gracefully accepted by Amy Schumer …
Amy Schumer is known to joke about her own sex life and draws upon the subject in her stand-up routines frequently. But of course it’s one thing to have a self-depreciating persona as an entertainer, and an entirely different thing to be publicly ‘slut-shamed’ on social media by someone else … anyone else.
• Social media round-up: December 2015
• Social media round-up: November 2015
• Social media round-up: October 2015
• Social media round-up: September 2015
• A bad social media month for SBS (25 May 2015)
• Scott McIntyre v Special Broadcasting Service Corporation (20 May 2015)
A true sign of the times when it comes to social media’s reach into our everyday lives, was the announcement by Chubb, one of America’s largest insurance companies, late last year that they would start offering coverage for cyber-bullying in the United Kingdom, as part of their personal insurance offerings. The policy is reportedly designed to cover loss of income, counselling and professional support, and even relocation costs, resulting from being the victim of cyber-bullying, up to £50,000.
With cybersecurity and its financial consequences a serious commercial concern for some years now, as large corporates live under the constant threat of hacking attacks, it was only a question of time before concerns over the financial consequences of cyber crime crossed into our private lives.
Crime (and punishment)
In December, a UK man was charged with ‘malicious communications’ over threatening messages sent to MP Charlotte Leslie. The online threats to bomb the MP’s home reportedly related to a vote in the House of Commons authorising the bombing of Islamic State targets in Syria.
Mr. Wallace, also known as Muhammad Mujahid Islam, was sentenced to eight weeks in jail for the offence.
In the US, a woman found herself on the wrong side of the law, charged with second-degree criminal contempt, after she tagged her sister-in-law in a Facebook comment. Maria Gonzales was prohibited from contacting her sister-in-law, Maribel Calderon, by a court order, following a messy divorce by Ms Gonzales from Ms Calderon’s brother.
Ms Gonzales’ lawyer reportedly tried to argue the court order didn’t specifically prohibit contact via Facebook and that ‘tagging’ someone of Facebook is not ‘contact’, but Justice Capaci wasn’t having any of that argument and found Ms Gonzales in breach of the protection order.
Pending an appeal, Ms Gonzales is facing up to one year in prison over her ill-considered Facebook tag.
Closer to home, a 17-year-old boy was charged by police over a social media threat that lead to the high-profile evacuation and closure of the Sydney Opera House, and the suspension of the Manly ferry service.
It still appears to surprise many that in Australia, using a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offence (s474.17), or to make a threat (s474.15) are criminal offences under the Commonwealth Criminal Code, and the internet is a carriage service for the purposes of the Code.
If your social media actions qualify as a terrorist threat, the consequences can be far more severe.
Section 100.1 of the Code defines a terrorist act as ‘an action or threat of action’ which is made with the intention of advancing a political, religious or ideological cause and coercing, or influencing by intimidation a government, or intimidating the public or a section of the public. If a person engages in a terrorist act, the maximum penalty is imprisonment for life.
Even if an act of terrorism does not occur, a threat that otherwise satisfies the definition of a terrorist act will be deemed an offence under s101.2(3)(a) of the Code, so the consequences can be far-reaching.
Meanwhile a Victorian man, who was put on a community corrections order over threats made to Victoria Police, and urging Daesh to behead their captives, on Twitter, was back in court over breaching the order by, among other things, accessing social media. He was handed a fresh two-year order, and fined $300 for the breach by the Deputy Chief Magistrate, noting Mr Taha never actually engaged in any acts of terrorism, or in behaviour which would indicate that he intended to.
Of course terrorism related offences are not the only criminal offences one can commit on social media, as Mr Zane Alchin learned last November. Mr Alchin was charged by NSW Police with using a carriage service to menace, harass or offend, following alleged rape threats he made on Facebook, in a prosecution considered a landmark case by anti-harassment advocates. NSW Police came under intense criticism at the time after the targets of the abuse told media police initially ‘offered little support to our case.’
The offence carries a maximum penalty of three years imprisonment.
Contrary to earlier indications, Mr Alchin entered a plea of not guilty when he appeared in Newtown Local Court on 12 January, and he intends to fight the charge. Mr Alchin will return to court in March.
These cases are timely warnings to think twice before posting to social media. And remember, just because you say things on social media, that does not reduce the gravitas of what you are saying. Law enforcement officials are not in a position to ignore threats and presume you are being light-hearted, having a bit of ‘fun’, or had one too many drinks … in this day of age they have no choice but to act, and act fast.
The case of Mr Alchin wasn’t the only recent case of anti-women harassment or violence that attracted a social media storm for police. In December NSW Police was accused of failing to investigate a case of domestic violence after a 19-year-old woman was allegedly left beaten and bloodied by her boyfriend. The man was eventually charged by police, but only after an extensive social media campaign by activists calling out police on their alleged failure in properly investigating the matter.
These matters highlight police culture is continuing to struggle to get a handle on anti-women harassment and violence, both online and in the real world. It is an utterly unacceptable state of affairs when women feel the only way they can get police to take seriously, and properly investigate, online harassment and domestic violence incidents, is to social media shame them into action …
Social media companies vs extremism and bullying
In the meantime, social media companies are stepping up their campaign against their services being used to spread extremist militant propaganda. Facebook, Google and Twitter are all stepping up their efforts to stamp out social media being used to spread propaganda and for recruitment by Islamic militants.
Twitter also decided to update its policies relating to abusive behaviour and hateful conduct, and to ramp up its policing of what it considers socially unacceptable behaviour, including homophobic abuse.
Hateful conduct: You may not promote violence against or directly attack or threaten other people on the basis of race, ethnicity, national origin, sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease. We also do not allow accounts whose primary purpose is inciting harm towards others on the basis of these categories.
The Twitter Rules
Given the ubiquity of social media, the ease with which new accounts can be set up once an account is suspended or cancelled, and the vast amounts of data being uploaded every minute of the day around the globe, it remains to be seen what practical effect social media companies can, or are truly willing to, exert over such use of their services.
Tasmania Law Reform Institute’s report on bullying
Bullying on social media has been a significant issue and in this context a recent report by the Tasmania Law Reform Institute (TLRI) on bullying is also of relevance: Bullying, Final Report No. 22 (January 2016).
The TLRI was tasked with identifying Tasmania’s current law and legal frameworks that may be used to address bullying behaviour, including cyber-bullying and whether the law captures different forms of bullying and whether it may be enhanced, and to provide recommendations for any necessary law reform.
The final report handed down by the TLRI earlier this month makes 15 recommendations, including amending section 192 of the Criminal Code and section 106A(1) of the Justices Act 1959 (Tas) to make the most serious cases of bullying a criminal offence by extending the offence of stalking to include common bullying behaviours such as social exclusion, name-calling, cyber harassment and teasing.
The TLRI also recommended that legislation be introduced requiring all schools to implement anti-bullying policies.
Social media can help in fighting crime too …
On the bright side, social media can also be used to fight, and solve crimes.
A Canadian detective, inspired by the podcast ‘Serial‘, initiated a social media campaign in an effort to solve a three-year-old crime that stumped investigators. Detective Bui started to share clues to the murder online, including surveillance footage and images of various pieces of evidence.
The public provided a steady stream of new information in response to the social media campaign, and in late 2015 police announced they made an arrest, thanks to new information sourced throughout the campaign.
Digital privacy continues to evolve in Europe
In November I wrote about Austrian privacy activist, Max Schrems’ regulatory and privacy class action cases against Facebook. The regulatory case culminated in a decision by the Court of Justice of the European Union that invalidated the ‘safe harbour’ framework in place between the EU and the United States.
In December I reported on the subsequent outfall, forcing the European Commission to issue interim guidelines for transatlantic data transfers, and a separate Belgian court order requiring Facebook to stop tracking internet users who do not have accounts with the social network or risk fines of up to €250,000 a day.
Sweeping reforms to European privacy laws have now been largely agreed by the European Union, which will represent significant changes to the status quo. The new regulations will, among other things, force companies to report privacy breaches to authorities or face severe financial sanctions, up to 4% of a company’s global revenue for the most serious breaches, and will enshrine the so-called ‘right to be forgotten’ into European law.
The changes to European privacy regulations will no doubt reverberate around the world, and will particularly affect global social media operators.
Twitter issues state-sponsored hacking warnings
It was reported by a number of users in December that Twitter issued private email warnings to more than twenty users that they may have been the target of state-sponsored hacking attacks:
‘As a precaution, we are alerting you that your Twitter account is one of a small group of accounts that may have been targeted by state-sponsored actors. We believe that these actors (possibly associated with a government) may have been trying to obtain information such as email addresses, IP addresses, and/or phone numbers.
At this time, we have no evidence they obtained you account information, but we’re actively investigating this matter. We wish we had more we could share, but we don’t have any additional information at this time.’
By issuing the warnings, Twitter follows in the footsteps of Google and Facebook in sending out such alerts.
Dr Duffy awarded damages against Google
In November last year, I gave detailed account of Dr Janice Duffy’s defamation victory action against Google in the Supreme Court of South Australia on 27 October 2015, arising from damaging allegations made against her on various online forums and websites.
On 23 December, Justice Blue further held that:
- Dr Duffy failed to prove she suffered a diminution in earning capacity as a result of the defamatory publications by reference to the response of employers to employment applications, her psychiatric health or her devotion to the litigation; and
- Google’s lack of apology and persistence in a defence of justification did not give rise to aggravated damages, because Google’s conduct was not in bad faith, improper or unjustifiable.
However, Justice Blue held that Dr Duffy was entitled to general damages, and awarded her the sum of $100,000 plus $15,000 in interest: Duffy v Google Inc. (No 2.)  SASC 206. The maximum damages she could have been awarded under South Australian legislation is $376,500.
In determining the amount of damages, Justice Blue accepted Google’s contention that Dr Duffy should only be compensated for any loss caused by the publications in 2010 for which Google has been found liable, and not the overall losses suffered by reason of all online publications over the entire period by all media, including Yahoo Inc.’s Yahoo search engine, and Microsoft Inc.’s Bing search engine.
Dr Duffy also asked the court to make an order for costs to cover the legal fees she incurred during the protracted legal battle – the court has reserved its decision on costs.
Craig Foster and the social media lynch mob
Former Socceroo and television presenter Craig Foster’s recent social media experience is a valuable case study into social media hysteria, and the depths social media participants can sink to.
While the vile social media attacks on Foster are unlikely to result in any defamation claims, those who took part in the social media lynch mob can probably thank only their good luck, and what appears to be Foster’s good sense, in moving on and not pursuing the trolls who descended on him after his appearance at the Liverpool and Australian Legends soccer game at ANZ Stadium on 7 January 2016.
The legendary Socceroo players, who took part in a friendly game against the legends of Liverpool, were accompanied by their children on the field during the national anthem. During the anthem Foster had his arm around his eight-year-old daughter, who stood in front of him. Scores of Twitter users considered the manner in which he held on to his daughter inappropriate and made disturbing sexual assertions on social media.
I will not be reproducing any of the comments directed at Craig Foster, but the subsequent trolling directed at him is another recent example of social media hysteria snowballing into the modern equivalent of a lynch mob, and the importance of social media users always being prepared for managing such unpredictable incidents.
Foster has done an excellent job in managing this social media crisis, and his handling of the vicious trolling is an outstanding example of how to respond to such attacks. He issued a simple, dignified response on Facebook and Twitter, and then he proceeded to ignore the trolls …