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The footballer, the mistress, and the social network

Interesting times for freedom of expression on the net

What does the case of the super-injunction-toting, Twitter-baiting footballer mean for freedom of expression on the internet?

Assuming you're not living on a distant planet (in which case: welcome), you'll be familiar with the tiresome story of the footballer with whom Imogen Thomas (who she?) is alleged to have had an extra-marital affair. And if you're a regular social media user, you'll know exactly who he is.

The subsequent legal action taken by the footballer to prevent his name being associated with the story is but one of many such 'super injunction' stories generating headlines right now. Or it would be, were it not for the fact that he then tried to take legal action against those people who had named him on social networks such as Twitter - instantly making it the only story in town.

Twitter is now rife with people naming said footballer, making it infinitely less interesting for those of us with only a passing interest in such prurient nonsense (and that fed purely by inter-team Schadenfreude). But the situation as a whole should now be of great interest to all social media users.

U-boat Captain: "Your name will also go on the list! What is it?"

Mainwaring: "Don't tell him, Pike!"

[Wilson shifts uncomfortably]

It's always the cover up that gets you, and a good PR person would have advised this footballer to let it go weeks ago. The damage has been done, and trying to stem the flow now is merely making it a more interesting story.

Indeed, in justifying his paper's decision to go public with the footballer's identity this weekend, Sunday Herald legal advisor Paul McBride said: "Every child in the country with a mobile phone can now access Twitter or the internet and find out who this individual is and the idea that the media cannot report it is frankly absurd.”

Which raises an interesting point. Social media isn't broadcasting, it's conversation - but on a grander scale. It's no more possible to regulate Twitter than it is to stop your mother telling stories about embarrassing childhood episodes to your prospective life partner. Attempting to plug leaks in Twitter is akin to trying to stop people gossiping at work. A few Soviet states had a good crack at it, and look what happened to them...

Twitter and Facebook in particular can be brilliant ways to disseminate information and ideas, as witnessed in the part played by such sites in the events earlier this year in Egypt. On the other hand, completely unfounded rumours spread like weeds across Twitter, causing upset to their subjects. And there's not a lot you can do to prevent such misinformation, apart from putting out the correct story and engaging in the conversation.

It's why you should take with a very large pinch of salt anything you read on Twitter as fact. (Think of it as a less trustworthy, more rapidly updated Wikipedia. With hashtags.)

Traditional media, on the other hand, is held to a much higher standard. Before a journalist can publish any story he or she has to convince their publishers (and their publishers' lawyers) that if push came to shove they could prove beyond reasonable doubt in a court of law that the story is true. It's a peculiarly British trait to consider everything written in the newspapers as 'made up', but we live in the libel capital of the world. Other countries have much stricter privacy laws, but few place a greater burden of truth upon publications.

So, dear reader, if you have something to hide and it's about to leak, here is my advice: go to the nearest reputable newspaper, and spill your guts. You can't control or quieten social media, but you can get your version of events on the record, and influence the loudest voices in how they gossip. And if you really want to change what people are saying about you on Twitter: talk to them, not at them.

As to what this means for freedom of expression on the internet, who can say? As I type thousands of people are flouting the law by publishing information they are legally barred from spreading, secure in the knowledge that they are virtually untouchable. It can't be right to maliciously spread disinformation about individuals, but it feels good that the wealthy and powerful are not able to intimidate people into keeping schtum.

Interesting times.

See also: Twitter, shower gel and the art of terrible PR

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