A couple of weeks ago I spotted a Tweet in which I was interested. It contained a reference to a blog describing a visit to a school. Of course I read with interest – I have visited and worked with schools all over the country and continue to do so – albeit and very much from choice and family commitments – on a reduced scale. The blog started well enough and quite rightly praised what the writer saw as the good things in the school they had visited. But it took an interesting turn. Many of you will know what I am referring to. I gave what I was confident was sound advice to an NQT about how to conduct himself/herself professionally on-line in order to protect him/her from giving too much information that would allow him/her and their current school to be identified. And the floodgates opened…
I have long felt that Twitter was becoming increasingly adversarial but I guess like so many others it was only when it got to me that I realised how much.
I found myself at the receiving end of some very unpleasant on-line abuse both on Twitter and subsequently on a well read blog.
I will not rehearse what happened next. Many of you are aware of this.
Of course it was hurtful and of course I wanted to reply and defend my actions but as I used to say to NQTs and trainees – remember you are the adult in the room! I needed to be emotionally strong and professionally mature.
The consequences of deciding to follow through my concerns have resulted in a rapid learning spurt. It has taken me time, energy and tenacity. But it has been well worth it. I am fortunate that I have that time and that tenacity. But for those who don’t – and I hope this doesn’t sound pompous or patronising – I believe it is worth sharing what I have learnt. Bear in mind. I am not a lawyer so please do not treat this as the definitive version of what to do if you find yourself in a similar situation. It is just one person’s attempts to shed some light on an area that is, from discussions I have had of late, causing quite some concern. The research I have done and the guidance that I am about to share are aimed at everyone who tweets or blogs; at those who feel they may be the victim of unacceptable comments and at those who may just be feeling that saying something on-line protects them from libel and defamation laws.
There are indisputable points enshrined in law. There are no Twitter “untouchables” or “beyond the law” bloggers. I am sure that many people with far more internet knowledge than me have written better or more on this subject but I am trying to use a language and a context that EduTwitter people will feel comfortable with. My aim is not to make people frightened of tweeting or blogging or to close down anyone’s right to freedom of speech. I am simply saying be careful what you write. It is common sense. Do not abuse people, do not tell lies about them, make sure you know what you are talking about if you are going to get involved in an on-line discussion or blog. If you are going to retweet someone else’s blog make sure that it does not contain offensive language in the most recent or previous blogs or use such words as “incompetence” about fellow professionals or indeed anyone. And be careful how you describe pupils. They may seem to be anonymous at the time of writing but they are all someone’s son or daughter. Their parents do not send them to school to be written about publicly in derogatory terms.
What goes on-line, stays on-line. I have deliberately not mentioned whether or not you need to inform your employer if you are intending to take legal action. You will need to seek further advice on this from your Trade Union representative or a solicitor. I will not work beyond my comfort zone and risk giving the wrong advice. All I will say is that before entering into the world of EduTwitter it is a good idea to read and understand your employer’s code of professional conduct.
I have had many, many emails and DMs from people about this matter – most of whom I have never met and I have been overwhelmed by kindness and support. One message in particular sticks in my mind.
‘I just know there’s a very dark side to edu twitter sometimes and it’s very worrying what things people say when they think they have anonymity. “Free speech” does not mean “free slander” or “free defamation”‘
I will not name the person except to say that I shall always be grateful to her for her wise words and to many others for taking the time to make contact.
Stay calm. Do not respond to the abusive comments. Maintain a dignified silence – hard as this may be when you may be feeling a little less than dignified. Do not provoke the abuser or give them more air time. Pull out of the conversation the minute this changes from being a contentious but perfectly acceptable debate to abuse or threats against you.
Ask yourself if these people, who you have probably never met, would be saying these same things to your face?
Keep screen shots – quick, easy and necessary
Storify your tweets during the period you wish to report or seek legal guidance on – again quick, easy and necessary
Report the matter to Twitter.
At the same time…
If you feel that this abuse/these comments constitute a threat to you that may threaten your reputation or your livelihood contact the Citizens Advice Bureau as soon as you can. They are extremely knowledgeable and will indicate what you could do next. They will not give legal advice. They will advise you if the abuse is likely to be libellous, defamation of character or a hate crime. But they cannot give you a definitive answer. That is not their role.
If it is a hate crime you must contact your local police.
Remember there is a legal definition of a hate crime.
“A hate crime (also known as a bias-motivated crime) is a prejudice-motivated crime, usually violent, which occurs when a perpetrator targets a victim because of his or her membership (or perceived membership) in a certain social group. … A hate crime law is a law intended to deter bias-motivated violence.”
CAB will advise you on contacting a solicitor.
At this point most people will think “how much is all this going to cost me?” and “how stressful will it be?” The second one I cannot answer at all or indeed the first but the following may help.
There are specialist solicitors on line who are extremely skilled in handling these matters who offer free telephone advice and will then accept to look at your case for a modest fee. But you must know what you want to achieve e.g. that the blogger/tweeter removes the lies or accusations and or issues a public apology. Check out on-line legal experts’ credentials of course. Or see a local solicitor.
You will be given advice by the legal experts on what you need to do next. You can pull out at any point and this may have cost you little or nothing if you seek help on-line or a modest fee, which you can confirm in advance, with a local solicitor.
Make sure you have a full history of the tweets concerned and/or the blog including comments in which you feature. The solicitor will quite rightly go through these forensically. What you have written will also be open to scrutiny.
Before I embarked on any of this I went onto the National Crime Agency website. This provided excellent advice links that confirm that on-line comments in Tweets and Blogs are subject to the same libel law as anything that appears in writing anywhere else.
I joined Twitter to share, to challenge, to be challenged, to listen, to learn, to change my mind, to laugh… It is a great place to be – just like most workplaces. Let’s keep it welcome for all and to all. Let’s behave as mature professionals who do not go round in gangs. I am more than happy for people to DM me if you feel that you might like to express your views in private.
The best starting point is here – and will answer most of the questions that many of us have been asking. I have cut and pasted below the most important bits of the article just in case anyone has problems with the links. If you do just copy into your browser. It is well worth the effort.
- JNever disclose private information when blogging.
- Remember that what goes online stays online.
A great way to stay in touch. Make sure it’s safe and secure.
- Your details could be discovered even if you blog under an assumed name, or anonymously. For example, blogs that are stored outside the EU may not be covered by the same data protection or privacy regulations we enjoy in the UK.
- You might regret later, something that you blog about. For example, you may lose your job or fail an interview because of embarrassing posts, or upset a friend, relative or loved one.
- Blogs are subject to libel law. Posting something that is untrue about an individual or organisation could incur serious penalties.
- Remember – what you post online stays online … anything you post remains in the public domain and accessible indefinitely. Even if you subsequently delete the post, it may have been cached in a search engine or internet archive, or in a company server.
- You may think you have a small audience, but blogs are public and it is very easy for people to find information on them via search engines.
- The ‘comment’ feature present on many blogs could be exploited by spammers including links to websites they are promoting, cyber-criminals including links to fraudulent websites, or people using abusive or threatening language.
- Children unwittingly revealing personal information or posting photographs of themselves.
- If you want your blog to be public, disclose only what you want everyone on the Internet to know. Otherwise, keep your blog private.
- Periodically review who has access to your site and make changes if necessary.
- Keep details that identify you only to yourself and trusted people.
- Do not post confidential information that might be used to steal your identity such as credit card numbers, passport details or home address.
- Consider using an assumed name if you wish to keep your identity secret for personal safety, political reasons or security of employment.
- Be careful what information you disclose such as your address, school, place of work or birthday.
- Be careful about the photos you post as they may reveal things about you that you would rather keep private.
- Be careful about what private feelings you share in your blog.
- Be aware of what friends blog about you, or write in comments on your blog, particularly about your personal details and activities.
- Be cautious about meeting in person someone you only know through blogging.
- Ensure that children are aware of the dangers of blogging to a public audience.
- If you are new to blogging, start cautiously. Understand the features of the software you use and how the blogging community (the ‘blogosphere’) works, including how to filter comments.
- Do not post anything that may cause you embarrassment at a later date.