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Can Tweeting Be Like Yelling “Fire” In A Theater?

There’s been a lot of cases circling around social media and social responsibility lately.  Two people were jailed in the UK for four years over a Facebook event related to the riots, and now Gerardo Buganza, the interior secretary for Veracruzstate in Mexico, said it could very well be the “Twitter terrorism” caused by two people who allegedly spread false reports of gunmen attacking schools and kidnapping children.

According to Mashable, “those reports caused such panic when parents scrambled around the city to get to their children that there were dozens of car accidents and emergency phone lines were jammed.”

Yelling Fire In A Theater?

Anyone who is a proponent of the first amendment in the USA knows that the one thing you can’t do is yell fire in a theater. But the two people in question are  a private school teacher and a radio presenter, and now face 30 years in prison for charges under terrorism laws. And, both claim that they only tweeted what they saw elsewhere on the Internet.

Yes, there is some responsibility that comes with tweeting, but, there’s also so much room for error, retweeting, even your account being hacked. It’s not the same as yelling fire in a theater, it’s more complicated than that as far as I can see. Luis Arenas, who lives in the Veracruz area had this to say:

“This wasn’t made on purpose, the people who tweeted that msgs where just fathers and friends.. the thing is that politicians want to distract all the people attention by telling that Twitter is not a reliable source of news because twitter make government look bad in security matters. When in the past 3-4 months have saved a lot of lives.. we are facing a lot of problems between two sides of drugs bands and many lives have been taken, twitter is saving people lives.”

Gossip Is A Crime?

Think of it this way. Twitter, although often a perfectly good source of information is often the quickest vehicle to spread a rumor. If gossip becomes crime, I shudder to think what is next. Social media is viral in nature, sometimes for good, sometimes for bad, but get people too scared they are being watched or listened to, and it will die as quickly as it sprung to life. A word of advice, while the jury is still out on this case, I’d watch what you tweet.

-Sources Mentioned: http://mashable.com/2011/09/04/twitter-terrorists/

-Image Source: http://www.flickr.com/photos/ripnread/5492775363




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Author:Tammy Kahn Fennell

Tammy is the editor of this fine blog, and the CEO of MarketMeSuite, the premium Social Media Inbox for Small Businesses. Go on, you can even use it for free! You can follow Tammy on Twitter @Tammykfennell.
  • http://twitter.com/kshaidle Kathy Shaidle

    Er, no.

    The Supreme Court judge who invented that phrase was a eugenicist (among other things) who was ruling against a guy many Americans would probably find fairly sympathetic.

    Plus the expression was an anarchronism even when he uttered it: theaters were no longer illuminated by gas at the time of the ruling. He wasn’t exactly in touch with the world.

    When there IS a fire in a crowded theater, it is in fact one’s OBLIGATION to yell “fire!” This expression is wrongheaded on multiple levels, and so is the principle:


    • http://wearesocialpeople.com We Are Social People

      Very interesting Kathy…
      I had always assumed you just couldn’t yell “Fire” if there WASN’T one. Didn’t think the case was about not shouting it if there was one… Am I following correctly?~Tammy

  • http://twitter.com/digitaliprod Digital I

    The troubling thing here is that Twitter and other social media services can (and have been) used to spread disinformation. That is, individuals and entities can potentially post false (and potentially dangerous) information which is spread -as is being argued in Veracruz- by persons without knowledge that the information is false, or with an intention to deceive.

    The net result, however, is exactly the kind of pandemonium the phrase “yelling fire in a crowded theatre” was meant to express. People become panicked, and panic spreads, diverting resources from legitimate emergencies, clouding assessments of the real situation, and possibly masking an even greater threat occurring elsewhere. 

    There is another old saying going back to the days when newspapers dominated our media – “Don’t believe everything you read!” This admonition was a basic common sense idea that perhaps whoever wrote the article, or indeed, whoever published the paper, had some vested interest in making the statements in the article.

    We would do well to remember this maxim when re-tweeting, or passing along anything we find on the Internet. There is no final authority (and I actually think that is a good thing) to say what is and is not true complete and factual amongst the unending stream of bytes. We are responsible for verifying our sources, or we become responsible for spreading malicious and potentially harmful material if we don’t.