MATT COOPER: Cowards who abuse free speech hiding behind anonymity of internet

IT must have seemed like a good idea at the time, when a video using material from a dashboard camera in a taxi was uploaded to Facebook and YouTube showing a guy jumping out of his car without paying his fare.

Just who was this fare-dodger? If he was identified would it mean that then he would be forced to pay his debt? Would other taxi drivers be on the look-out for this guy so they wouldn’t get stung either? The video quickly went viral, watched by many people who would not know anyone going to and getting out of a taxi to Monkstown in Dublin; they wanted to rubberneck online.

Well apparently somebody thought that they had recognised the offender. So they posted his name on the internet. This so-called whistleblower did so anonymously however, using the name “daithii4u” rather than disclosing his (or her) real identity. And he (or she) was wrong in the identification, either accidentally or deliberately. Fortunately for the person who was named wrongly proof was available that he couldn’t have been in the taxi on the night in question. But this didn’t stop him from being vilified as a fare dodger, as some people (again mostly anonymous people online) questioned the provenance of his airline ticket from Toyko to Dubai that he had for the time he had travelled allegedly instead into Monkstown. Some subjected him to vile abuse, again hiding behind anonymity.

The young man correctly judged that a smear can stick, with potentially damaging consequences. Whatever about today’s paper being tomorrow’s fish and chips wrapping — what goes up on Facebook and YouTube sticks there permanently, unless it is removed. Employers do Facebook checks these days and many potential candidates for jobs have not been appointed, or people have even lost jobs, because of things that have been posted online.

However, the problem with giant organisations such as Facebook and YouTube is that they can be slow to act, even when confronted with evidence of wrongdoing. YouTube is quick to take down things that may breach copyright — for its own financial protection — but it may require proof of a person’s claim that something is not what it claims to be: what if this individual was really guilty but just claimed he wasn’t?

The young man who felt that he had been defamed wanted the material removed and went to law to get it done. But he faced the reluctance of Facebook in particular to help him identify who it was who seemed to be pursuing a vendetta against him. He had to file the legal action against Facebook, Google and YouTube (and the unnamed posters) to get this done. This created another unwanted problem. He had to take the action in his own name and newspaper reporters, seeing the case listed in the daily publication of what is to appear in front of the courts, wanted to know more as to why some Irish individual was seeking an injuction against these multi-national giants. They decided to report on the circumstances of the case, in other words bringing his identity to an even wider audience. He sought another injunction, this time seeking to stop the newspapers reporting on his initial legal actions. He lost the case in the High Court.

While his upset and action were understandable it was still a strange course of action to take. His lawyers should have been able to advise that such blanket injunctions are not granted in the Irish courts, that he was trying to establish a precedent that the media was bound to fight against. As pertinently, the newspapers were actually going to do him a favour, if inadvertently. By reporting the facts of the case they would be helping him to establish that he was the victim of an injustice in being wrongly accused of fare dodging. (Unfortunately, and this is a black mark, some of the newspaper reports failed to include the highly pertinent fact that the individual, named as Eoin McKeogh, was in fact innocent, something that emerged only later).

The real target of the young man’s ire, however, should be the keyboard warrior called “Daithii4U” and the others who jumped onto the bandwagon he launched. That individual deserves to be outed, named and shamed. If he made an honest mistake he should have withdrawn his identification of McKeogh by now and apologised for it. But it seems that he engaged in a deliberate campaign against the young man. Even when McKeogh was fighting to establish his innocence this individual deliberately tried, successfully, to upload the video onto other platforms.

Unfortunately, this type of behaviour and activity is all too common on the net. The old Mark Twain adage that freedom of speech does not allow one to maliciously and falsely cry “fire” in a crowded room should most definitely apply to the internet where many cowards, hiding behind pen-names rather than identify themselves, think they can say almost anything.

Some of the stuff that is written by these people about others on the internet can be extraordinary in its vile abuse and its deliberate inaccuracy.

Worse, some of the authors claim to be “truth-tellers” and denigrate the conventional media at every opportunity, making all sorts of allegations about media organisations, broadcasters and journalists that are defamatory, claiming them to deliberately distort reports and stories to fit agendas. It is also true that sometimes the conventional media does use anonymous sources for its stories. But the print media has to be careful in how it uses off-the-record, or unattributed sources. They can be very useful in bringing important information into the public domain. Often people will not talk freely or give over important information if it is going to be attributed to them, often for fear of adverse consequences.

But that poses an important dilemma for the reporter who receives the material: is their collaboration to prove that it is accurate? Is there legitimate documentary evidence to support unattributed contentions? Will they stand up if challenged in a court of law? I have relied on the off-the-record, unattributed information on many occasions during my career as a print journalist, and for my two books, but only when confident that the information was factually accurate. Facts trump opinion when it comes to publication. Putting my name to what I write, and realising the legal responsibilities that fall upon the publishers of my words, acts as a powerful motivator to being accurate. Experience also teaches the difference between a fact and opinion.

By the same token I have to be careful when reading text messages to my radio programme. Again many are unsigned. Many are the offering of opinion rather than fact. Is it hypocritical to read them on air in such circumstances? It is a point we have had to consider. Are the facts claimed accurate? Can opinions be safer, legally, to read? However, the texts are filtered before they are read and only a small portion make it to air. This is in stark contrast to the internet where editing and moderation seem to be only occasional.

This is not to decry the powerful use of the internet for making information more freely available and speedily. I understand those who fear control of content, particularly by political and state authorities, as a way of controlling freedom of speech. (The use of social media and the internet was crucial to sparking the Arab Spring). But is it not always a black and white issue and the case of Eoin McKeogh illustrates how such freedoms can be abused by cowards who are not well motivated and who won’t put their names to their claims.

The Last Word with Matt Cooper is broadcast on 100-102 Today FM, Monday to Friday, 4.30pm to 7pm.


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