Leader of the Opposition, Bishop Joseph Atherley, last week highlighted the need for legislation to be made more meaningful and potent when it comes to regulating the use of social media. In his contribution to the debate in the Lower House on the Law Review and Law Reform Bill, he stated “...defamation laws must be made appropriately applicable to the new tech environment, else people will say what they will about people, damage their reputations, destroy their families, interfere with their career progress and all kinds of stuff”.
The potential for damage when it comes to social media is indeed wide-scale. New communications technologies have seen billions of users gain entry into each others’ lives, literally at the touch of a button (or screen). However, as the popular saying goes, “With great power comes great responsibility”. Therefore, it becomes necessary to monitor content made available to the public on social media platforms, especially as this medium with its audio/visual component and interpersonal feel has the tendency to influence audiences.
In Barbados, the challenge comes mainly from online social media networks like Whatsapp, Twitter, Instagram and Facebook, which by their very nature are spontaneous, yet mostly unrestricted and undeniably significant in the lives of many youngsters today. So, how can one monitor content which is unfathomable in quantity and oftentimes fleeting? Furthermore, what should one consider inappropriate?
Bishop Atherley’s concern about defamation would be easily identifiable; one merely has to identify the truth from the untruth. However, regulating social media on the basis of propriety would be difficult and, many would argue, unjust. For instance, content that is undesirable for some (like minors) may be okay for others; photos thought gruesome by a few may be acceptable by most; and some content, though embarrassing or emotionally upsetting to some individuals, should not be restricted on these grounds alone.
So, how does one police online social media? It would appear that policing would revolve around enforcing stricter defamation laws and possibly establishing legislation to prevent publishing materials related to ongoing police investigations. The ideal scenario would be to avoid transgressions in the first place instead of taking corrective measures – stop the offence before it starts. However, great care must be exercised to ensure that social media does not become too controlled. Any other restrictive regulations could hamper individuals’ freedom of speech or democratic rights.
It becomes evident then that in addition to strengthening legislation to enforce tougher punitive penalties on those who defame or distribute material pertinent to law enforcement cases, efforts must also go into creating a behavioural change in those in society. This can be done through educating on how to avoid the misuse of social media, teaching the impact their actions have on the lives of others, and informing of the penalties of misuse. Still, although warnings and guidelines can be given in terms and conditions of use on these online networks, it comes down to an individual’s personal integrity and their ability to consider the ramifications of their actions and do the right thing.