This article first appeared on the Sunday edition of Malta Today
Imagine this: you walk up to a complete stranger, tap them on the shoulder and launch into a tirade of insults, allegations, accusations and malicious gossip to their face.
It’s fair to say that not many of you reading this would do so (a) because you don’t want to risk getting punched in the face and (b) because in a civilized society we have been conditioned to act according to social mores when we are face to face with someone, which usually precludes that kind of behaviour.
We are taught as children that doing and saying certain things to people’s faces is “not nice”, which is why we quickly correct kids if (for example) they point to a woman with a big, prominent, hook nose and describe exactly what they see. Or point to a morbidly obese man and announce to everyone within earshot, “look, how fat he is”. Why? Because it hurts the person’s feelings, it’s rude and it’s just not done.
Some would also say it’s because “in real life” most of us put on a mask to avoid showing our true feelings and not blurt out what we are really thinking. Like it or not, the way human nature has evolved, it is perfectly “acceptable” to say things behind someone’s back, but not many would dare repeat the same thing to the person themselves. The upside of this is that we don’t go around in permanent confrontational mode. The downside is that it is completely hypocritical and fake. The person smiling and exchanging humorous banter with you at the office may be simultaneously backstabbing you with the boss every chance they get. However, while it may be a two-faced culture we live in, at least it keeps the lid on complete anarchy, social mayhem and utter chaos.
Facebook and the online commentary world in general, however, seem to exist in a parallel universe where all these unwritten rules of social behaviour have fallen by the wayside. FB , especially, lulls you into believing you are talking to a circle of your closet friends rather than the hundreds (thousands?) who can see what you write online. The fact that so many prefer to scroll through posts silently rather than commenting, reinforces this illusion, leading you to assume that only the ones who bother to comment are the ones actually reading it.
Ha! Think again.
People always forget that writing stuff on FB is like publishing it in your own little newspaper. I would say that it’s worse because it spreads much faster and the probability of people seeing it is multiplied. Plus it’s there forever unless deleted by the original poster. Yet this does not stop people from persisting in uploading Intimate details about their private life on their own timeline like some kind of personal diary in which they spill all their most innermost thoughts. They also over-share too much information in groups which are supposed to be closed, and for members only (except for one small catch: some groups run into the tens of thousands which kind of defeats the purpose. My view is that once a group goes over one thousand members, you can no longer be sure that was is said in there will remain private). And while, ethically, no, you should not share what you read on a closed group with others, who are we kidding? Screen shots and ‘copy and paste’ are tools which are just much too easy and tempting for the itchy fingers of those who revel in juicy gossip (as long as it’s not about them) .
When it comes to levelling criticism at people in the public eye, however, the scenario does shift a little. On the one hand, I firmly believed that we should always be free to express our opinion of what politicians and those who hold public office are doing wrong. Yet, the debate always comes round to the same argument: where does fair comment end, and defamation and libel begin? This question was tested this week in Court when Magistrate Francesco Depasquale fined a man a whopping 7000 Euro for comments he posted on FB about Minister Joe Mizzi. The Court ruled that a Facebook profile with 700 “friends” is considered a publication and that the man had abused social media by directly and unfairly attacking the Minister’s integrity and reputation by accusing him of being “corrupt” and a “cuckold” (“kurnut” which in Maltese has deeply offensive connotations). He also claimed that the Minister is a man “who detests Birgu” and is an “intrinsically vindictive Minister”.
What brought on this livid rant, you may ask? Well, here it is easy to understand the man’s frustrations and even to sympathize with him. The road he lives in had been closed for 18 months due to infrastructural works, causing great inconvenience to all the residents. However, just before the Queen’s visit, the nearby main road from which Her Majesty’s car was expected to pass, was asphalted and ready in record time. It was the last straw, and the man flipped.
We have all been there: our irritation and stress levels reaching boiling point at the inertia and apathy we see around us when it comes to getting things done. So yes, I can fully understand how and why this man blew a fuse. But, and this is where the Courts come in, does our fury, no matter how merited, justify publishing wild allegations in the heat of the moment against someone (even a politician) without any real proof? The Magistrate decided that no, the comments, which were shared three times by the man on his profile (and apparently re-shared by others, giving them a wider audience) constituted defamation. Although the posts were subsequently deleted, the Court pointed out that the man did not withdraw the allegations nor did he issue an apology on the same public forum. So the Minister sued him, and won.
Now, some have argued that this is dangerous territory as it constitutes a threat to freedom of speech, and that the Minister went too far and handled it badly. I tend to agree with the latter argument because (even though he was technically and legally right) it still looks bad when someone who is in Government takes a common citizen to Court. In politics, optics are everything, and a savvy PR person who is good at damage control might have been able to persuade the Minister to go about it in another way to minimize any harm which may have been caused and to mollify this very upset man. There’s another thing with these type of lawsuits, which is known as the Streisand effect: those who never read the comments in the first place (like myself) now know all about them, so they have been given even more publicity, rather than being allowed to die a natural death.
As for the threat to freedom of speech argument, here is where I have my doubts. I feel the freedom to offend a politician with a choice variety of insults when they screw up, should be protected. But I do think that a line is crossed when instead of just calling him or her [email protected]£$%^ the comments turn into outright allegations and accusations which one fails to prove, such as happened in this case. As the Court pointed out in its judgement, while quoting from a previous case:
“The right to freedom of expression is not a licence for one to tarnish someone else’s reputation and then for one to try to hide and behind that right”.