ENTERTAINMENT & MEDIA LITIGATION: LOSING ANONYMITY

COMMUNICATION IN THE SOCIAL MEDIA AGEBy now, you’ve seen the image. In June 2011, the Vancouver Canucks lost game 7 of the 2011 Stanley Cup Finals to the Boston Bruins in Vancouver. Chaos ensued, and Vancouver burned. Sports fans rioting in disappointment over losing a championship (or in celebration of winning one) is hardly unusual. However, as the people of Vancouver rioted in the streets, a picture captured a couple in a private, intimate moment against a backdrop of smoke and police in riot gear. The photographer and the media reporting on the Vancouver riot did not know their names. They were simply the kissing couple.

Not surprisingly, the stark contrast between the violence in the background and the kissing couple lying on the street was a sensation — the picture went “viral” — disseminated worldwide on social networks as well as traditional media. With that kind of coverage, there was no chance that the anonymous couple would stay anonymous for long.

After the jump, I’ll discuss the implications of the instantaneous spread of information and social media — particularly on anonymity and expectations of privacy.

THE POWER OF SOCIAL AND NEW MEDIA

Over two years ago, I wrote about some of the privacy and accuracy risks inherent in social media. Back then, I called social networking a “craze.” It’s more than that now. Twitter has become a significant force in marketing and communication — so much so that it is now commonplace for tweets to not only lead the news but also be the news. Traditional media outlets monitor and report on the tweets of celebrities and athletes. And “regular” people can become instant news reporters on twitter.

Examples abound, but one “regular” guy who found instant fame (and all that comes with it) because of his tweets is Sohaib Athar — who goes by @ReallyVirtual on Twitter. Athar was a little-known Pakistani IT consultant living in Abbottabad when he tweeted about a helicopter hovering overhead at 1 a.m. local time. By sunrise, Athar was famous — as his tweet was recognized world-wide as the first report of the special forces raid upon Osama bin Laden’s compound. In the instant of his tweet, Athar became a reporter, source and celebrity.

Tweets on the uprisings in Egypt and Tunisia are credited with assisting (and emboldening) protesters and shedding light on the brutalities committed by those in power. Twitter and other social media were instrumental in getting news from (and into) Japan during the tsunami disaster. And as I write this, Twitter has been ahead of the traditional media in reporting on the riots in London. So there can be no question that, in the two years since my post in 2009, social media (particularly Twitter) has become a powerful communications tool. Despite the risks to privacy and accuracy which I referenced, information spreads faster through Twitter, Facebook and other social media.

(The strength and easy access to social media has also influenced the way companies and people market themselves and their products. I’ll save thoughts on the commercial impact of social media for another day.)

THE VANCOUVER COUPLE

So what of our anonymous kissing couple? Within 24 hours, traditional news media (like this ABC News story) identified them — Scott Jones and Alexandra Thomas. Jones and Thomas were interviewed and told their story — how they were “run over” by riot police and that the “kiss” was Jones’ way of calming Thomas down from the trauma. The couple appeared on morning news and talk shows. They were anonymous no more.

TAKEAWAYS

So what do the kissing couple and the tweeting IT consultant tell us? At the start of the Internet age, and the initial proliferation of blogs and message boards, I remember the fear that people could say or do things on the Internet anonymously — and therefore say damaging things with impunity. Now with the growth and strength of social media, the worry is no longer about the Internet promoting anonymity — it’s about the Internet destroying it. Anything you do or say in public — over the Internet — can define you in a blink of an eye. The IT consultant will forever be the guy who first reported on the US raid against bin Laden in Abbottabad. The kissing couple will be forever be the couple whose love for each other triumphed against the violence of the Stanley Cup Finals riot in Vancouver.

Whether by choice or by happenstance, anyone can become famous — infamous — in an instant. That could be a good thing — many opportunities can result from fame, however fleeting. Or it could be a bad thing — imagine being in Abbottabad unintentionally “reporting” on the death of the leader of al Qaeda. Your conduct in public view — and on the internet — can easily spread across the globe in an instant. And your anonymity will be lost almost as quickly.

So remember . . . just about everyone has a cell phone camera, most with video capabilities. With widespread access to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media, it’s only a matter of time that a picture or video of you doing something dumb will get uploaded for the world to see.

Like I said two years ago, there are significant risks with the growth of social media. Your anonymity and privacy are harder to protect. And your expectations that conduct can remain private have diminished. But the benefits far outweigh the potential costs — as long as we remain vigilant and careful.