Is Twitter a pub or a publication? I had this debate with Julia Hartley-Brewer on TalkRadio a few weeks back. I’m willing to listen to both arguments but I’ve largely come down on the ‘pub’ side of the argument.
The laws we have created to regulate the media are based on organisations that restrict, through recruitment, employment, training, who can publish through their outlets. There are multiple checks, for tone and legality, on everything they put out.
Socials networks are open to just about anyone, with — like a pub — some age controls. They are venues for debate where all are welcome. Some will speak to big groups, some to small, and some will take the mic and talk bollocks on open mic night.
The key thing about a pub is that while it may not have editors, it does have bouncers, or at worst a surly landlord (or lady) to eject anyone exhibiting bad behaviour.
Defining bad behaviour
What is ‘bad behaviour’? There are laws about serving people who are inebriated. There are laws protecting other people in the pub from verbal and physical abuse. There are laws about equal treatment, and inciting violence. And there are generally accepted standards of public behaviour. It’s right to expect the pub to enforce all of these on its customers. Some pubs might choose to go further with their own customers, just like Sam Smiths pubs have a no swearing policy.
Unless policies enforcing a standard of behaviour are enforced, and enforced on every denizen, then the pub descends in to a place of chaos. If this happens, something bad happens to the establishment. Fail to control behaviour for too long and you lose your licence to operate.
This is the way we should think of — and regulate — social networks. They cannot be responsible for checking everything that is published. And I don’t think we want them to be: they lose their value if everything said is subject to a strict editorial policy. As has been seen recently, the necessarily automated approach this requires at the scale of a social network results in a lot of mistakes.
We also shouldn’t expect them to eject everyone for a first offence, unless it is particularly egregious. The equivalent of a verbal warning from the landlady/lord should be all that is needed.
But, if there are persistent offenders, reported by the other denizens, then the pub needs to act swiftly. Eject and bar. The regulatory consequences should come if they fail to act. And they should be serious, as they are for a bar.
All of which means that at some point, Twitter is going to have to say: “Go home Donald, you’re drunk. And you’re barred.”