19 Nov 2012

Gunning for Twitter

Could the defaming of a British peer kill the still young social network revolution? It might, but it shouldn't, argues Amber Melville-Brown

Annette Shaff/Shutterstock.com Annette Shaff/Shutterstock.com

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, to ‘twitter’ is to talk or chatter rapidly in a small or tremulous voice. Since the word obtained a capital ‘T’ and thrust itself into the social networking sphere in 2006, the world has been a noisier place.
The Internet has been duly praised for its ability to educate, entertain and inform. But the dangers of communicating information – or misinformation -- to millions of people at the touch of a button should be self-evident. And no more so than in what has become the poster child case of Lord McAlpine. Because there is nothing small or tremulous about the noise stirred in this matter -- there is a real fear on the virtual streets that the guns are out for Twitter and that it may not survive the hunting season.

Substantial damages

That Lord McAlpine is not a paedophile has been made abundantly clear: by the BBC’s rapid retraction and apology (despite its Newsnight programme not actually naming him), by the corporation’s substantial damages offering of £185,000, by the high profile disciplining of ITV breakfast show presenter Phillip Schofield following his publications to the Prime Minister, live on air, of an Internet list of alleged child abusers, and by the concerted, and continuing, campaign by Lord McAlpine and his legal team to track down every last one of those who defamed him on line. All of which combines to keep this story firmly in the headlines.
Anyone from the original source involved in the journey of a defamatory publication to the ultimate recipient can technically be liable for its publication. That one is simply repeating the words of another – which tweeters do consistently on Twitter, leading to stories ‘trending’ and gathering huge momentum -- is no defence. And the peer’s investigators are said to be tracking down the thousands who contributed on line to the virtual noise that sullied his reputation across the Internet.
Reports now suggest that as a result of the fear of ensuing litigation, a kind of hush has fallen over the social network with the beaks of those who would usually be squawking about the subject gone quiet.

Double recovery

Lord McAlpine is apparently not looking for more damages. Indeed, because of a rule against ‘double recovery’ he would be unlikely in any event to recover further significant sums for the publication of the same libel where his vindication had already been evidenced 185,000 times over by the BBC. But it does appear as though he intends to put down a marker with those who, in the words of journalist Janet Street-Porter this weekend, engaged in his ‘mob slander’, tracking them down and seeking to secure an apology, and token damages for charity.
Passing on gossip may seem an innocuous sport; it is not. And jumping on the bandwagon of someone else’s libel, where the contributor cannot possibly know the truth or otherwise of the allegations -- can do untold damage to reputation through their repetition. While a newspaper editor or mainstream broadcaster knows this only too well, teenagers – and some ill-informed adults -- in their dark bedrooms generally do not.
The Twitterati hardly baulked at the threat of being pursued by the English Attorney General for contempt of court last year over the flouting of court orders protecting the privacy of footballer Ryan Giggs. But the threat of libel litigation by a wealthy and clearly determined peer may have a greater impact.

Price of free speech

Freedom of speech is a vital commodity in a proudly democratic society. The power of the Internet as a forum for ideas and their impact on the world was highlighted in 2009 during protests against the Iranian regime.
But free speech has a price, and that is responsibility. A citizen’s right to communicate ideas and information, freely, though any medium, including Twitter, must be protected – but only where it does not unjustifiably and disproportionately damage the rights of others.
Twitter and those who use it cannot -- and do not -- operate outside the law. If this case serves to remind those who use social media that every user has at their fingertips the power, the responsibility and the potential liability, of a newspaper editor, then that should concentrate minds and reduce the extent of reckless publications.
If the route pursued by Lord McAlpine and his team results in the death of Twitter, then it will be a sorry day for democracy and free speech. But if it results in the death of irresponsible tweeting, then it is to be applauded.

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