Thursday, November 19, 2009

Be Careful What You Tweet

Be careful what you tweet. It could get you sued, or it could make you look stupid in front of millions.

Sure, 98 percent of what is tweeted is so banal that it doesn't get the attention of your followers, let alone anyone else. But Twitter has been in the news enough to make one think twice -- well, at least once -- about what one tweets just to make sure feet don't suddenly start flying into mouths all over the globe.

And journalists, be careful how you use Twitter. I can see it quickly becoming a lazy reporter's tool for monitoring various attitudes, certainly on les trends du jour, as in this story here.

I get concerned about lazy reporting because I was a lazy reporter. I look back on some of the stuff I produced and think, "Well, yeah, I phoned that one in." Tweeting one in isn't any better. Sure, it's easy to justify in a puff piece like the one I mention, but I have to ask myself -- is Twitter the kind of social platform a reporter can wander into, cull a few quotes and then leave without really doing any more work than cutting or pasting? I'm working on the assumption here, of course, that the reporters don't ask the twits if they can use their tweets in their stories. If reporters are asking, kudos to them. But I'm certain most are not asking at all. Folks on Twitter put stuff out to be heard, so what does it matter if someone in the mainstream media uses a tweet as a quote?

I fell into this trap often as a reporter, using quotes said in public that really weren't meant for public consumption. I pissed a few people off doing that. I learned quickly that for the sake of credibility, it's best to ask. Always ask. Asking almost always saves you from looking stupid, and can certainly help you recognize enough red flags to avoid being sued.

Then there's Courtney Love, who's being sued for libel because of something she tweeted. What's laughable in this situation is that there are experts out there parsing the legalities, saying that the law hasn't kept up with technology. This is what CNN is saying about the situation:
Legal experts say Internet-related cases are being watched closely because they confront new and unaddressed areas of American law.

For example, how should a libel case be handled when it comes to social media? How can society balance accountability with free speech? And if information -- from private thoughts to public datat -- is so readily available, how do we define what constitutes privacy?
Then CNN goes on to cite examples that have nothing to do with libel, accountability, and privacy, such as the passing on of digital property (Facebook profiles, passwords) when someone dies, to deciding what law apply if, for example, someone in England sues someone in Australia for libel. (Read the whole thing here.)

Libel is libel as far as I'm concerned, whether it's written on paper or tweeted into the ethers. If you put something on the web, you cannot argue it's private -- so the social media argument doesn't apply. And the defenses -- truth being the best, opinion being tenable but shaky -- ought to be as applicable to what's written in a newspaper as to what's typed on Twitter. Thankfully, there are folks out there who say the same thing; folks much more knowledgable about the law than I am.

This ties in nicely with the post I wrote yesterday. We sometimes forget in our rush to tell the world what we think about everything that, sometimes, the world really is listening.

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