LAST week we reported that an investigation was under way after pictures of sick pensioners on a Gwent hospital ward were posted on a social networking website. EMMA MACKINTOSH looks at the good and bad sides of social media, and what happens when users go too far.

FOR many people it is second nature. You wake up in the morning and pick up your smart phone, before clicking an icon which takes you directly to a social media website.

Whether you’re addicted to Facebook, constantly refreshing your Twitter feed or trying to abstain altogether, social media is hard to avoid, particularly now that it is hitting the headlines.

If you were to ask people in early 2004 which social media sites they used, they may have said the music website MySpace, or else stared blankly at you.

Eight years on, Mark Zuckerberg’s social networking website Facebook has 995 million monthly active users. This translates as almost one in seven people on the planet. The micro-blogging phenomenon Twitter produces an average of 340 million tweets a day.

Both websites played a key part in last year’s uprisings ‘Arab spring’ , to the extent that a report by the Dubai School of Government said social media had “played a critical role in mobilisation, empowerment, shaping opinions and influencing change.”

Glyn Mottershead, lecturer in digital journalism at Cardiff University, said some people view Twitter as a new, useful and quick way of communicating.

“There is a sense of belonging and you can find like-minded people,” he said.

“The problem is some people don’t think about what they’re saying and that it’s in public. If you have 1,500 followers, taking into account how many people follow each of those users, the total reach could be as much as six million, and that’s what people don’t realise.

“If you talk loudly in public, everyone can hear it.”

Given instant access to a global audience, people have posted offensive or inappropriate messages.

There have been public apologies and prosecutions.

In May this year, the Argus reported that two Newport Gwent Dragons rugby players had to issue apologies after making jokes on Twitter about hitting women.

Back row pair TomBrown and Andrew Coombs later removed the remarks, but one Argus website user said: “Unbelievable how many people still regard Twitter and Facebook as private conversations.”

In July this year Paul Chambers, 28, of Northern Ireland, won a challenge against his conviction for sending an alleged “menacing electronic communication” in May 2010, after he tweeted that he would “blow sky high” Doncaster’s Robin Hood Airport.

Mr Chambers insisted it was a “silly joke” and sent the message to his 600 followers in a moment of frustration.

Comedians Al Murray and Stephen Fry were among those supporting Mr Chambers’ case and, after a hearing at the High Court in London, his conviction was quashed.

The volume of tweets, particularly those directed at celebrities, has now reached such a critical mass that the Director of Public Prosecutions, Keir Stamer, has called for new legislation to effectively deal with offensive messages posted on social networking sites.

He recently chose not to charge a Welsh Premier League footballer who posted an offensive message about the Olympic diver TomDaley.

Explaining his decision, Mr Stamer said: “This was, in essence, a one-off offensive Twitter message, intended for family and friends, which made its way into the public domain.”

He said new guidelines were needed on the “boundaries of free speech” because of the growing number of social media cases.

“Social media is a new and emerging phenomenon raising difficult issues of principle, which have to be confronted not only by prosecutors but also by others including the police, the courts and service providers,”

he said.

The Crown Prosecution Service is due to issue interim guidelines ahead of public consultation soon - but should all offensive messages posted on the internet end up in court?

South East WalesAMWilliam Graham spoke out in the Senedd last week after the Argus published a story revealing that a woman had put pictures of sick hospital patients at Abergavenny’s Nevill Hall Hospital on the internet.

He believes it should be down to the social networking sites themselves to regulate content, as well as health boards drawing up a uniform policy for privacy across Wales.

Mr Graham told the Argus: “When you get someone who exploits and abuses people’s privacy at a time when they are at their lowest, it’s a very disturbing trend and needs to be stopped as soon as possible.

“Facebook is basically self-regulating but it relies a great deal on people’s common decency.

“Health boards should also regulate and we will be pushing the Minister to draw up guidelines with health boards to ensure there’s a uniform policy across Wales.”

Monmouth MP David Davies agreed. He said it would be a waste of police time if every offensive message went to court.

Speaking about the case at Nevill Hall, Mr Davies said: “Surely common sense should have told this person that it was wrong.

“Even with being an MP, invasion of privacy shouldn’t come with the territory.

No-one has the right to snoop.

“But it would be very hard to frame any legislation.

“It’s always complicated legislating because it has to be enforced. I would rather signs went up in hospitals before people get taken to court.”

Mr Mottershead said a few tweaks are required but the relevant legislation is already there.

“We don’t need new laws, it’s already there in the Telecommunications Act, within defamation and privacy legislation,”

he said. “There are a few tweaks needed but it’s already covered.”

A draft Defamation Bill, proposed by former Justice Secretary Ken Clarke, is due to go before the House of Lords for its second reading next Tuesday.

It would introduce new statutory defences of truth and honest opinion, to replace the common law defences of justification and fair comment.

But using social media to insult people is not about freedom of speech, said Mr Mottershead. “The right to privacy and freedom of expression are both enshrined in law but freedom of speech isn’t about the right to gob off and insult people,”

he said.

“There are spaces which are private, there are places where you can talk to other like-minded people about what you’re interested in.

“But none of us would run down the high street waving a big flag saying ‘I don’t like soand- so’, that’s a stupid thing to do which would have repercussions.

“It’s what we call digital literacy – you’re in public, think about who will see it. You might think you’re being funny now but will your future employer find it funny?”

So is social media always the ‘bad guy’, or does it serve a useful purpose in society? In May this year two men arrived at an internet café in Colombia, rented two computers, then proceeded to rob the café at gunpoint.

The café administrator called the police, who discovered that one of the men had left their Facebook account open on the computer. He was swiftly apprehended.

New York’s Police Department has even formed a social media unit to catch criminals who use Facebook and Twitter to announce law-breaking plans or brag about a crime.

Whatever your view on social media, the key is clearly to check your privacy settings, said Mr Mottershead.

“Lock your profile, check what you want other people to see and work from there,” he said.

“People think they have the right to say what they want, but it boils down to ‘if you can’t say anything nice...’ and people forget that.”