Revolutionary Measures

Twitter, libel and lies

Newton's laws

The world of technology invariably desensitises you by removing a physical reaction to your action. There don’t seem to be direct consequences  – hence people are often ruder in emails or on social media than they would be in real life or on the phone. After all, the chances of someone finding and punching you are that much smaller.

This has led a lot of people to see the internet world as beyond the law, a cyber Wild West where anything goes. And, to a certain extent it does – it takes time and effort to track down anonymous internet trolls, often requiring costly legal action to force ISPs or social networks, such as Facebook, to provide their names and addresses. Cases such as the breaking of the Ryan Giggs super-injunction just reinforce this belief.

But Twitter is subject to the laws of the land in the same way as any other written communication. That’s the realisation that is slowly dawning on the large number of people who tweeted or retweeted, wrongly naming or linking former senior Tory Lord McAlpine with child abuse claims. The innocent peer has instructed his solicitors to sue those who have defamed him online, with his lawyers urging those who tweeted the story to come forward and apologise. Many high profile names have already done so but what will be interesting is what happens to those that don’t apologise. They have clearly, if unwittingly, broken the law but tracking down every one of them and launching separate legal proceedings will be time consuming and costly. And it provides an interesting legal conundrum for judges – do you set damages based on the number of followers someone had when they sent the tweet? Is this a real use for Klout scores at last?

Before anyone starts muttering about Twitter crackdowns and eroding free speech it is important to understand the law. You can defend your words based on it being true, an honest opinion or a public service – but blatant untruths and lies are the same online as offline. In the aftermath of the Lord McAlpine case everyone on Twitter should take a look at the risks they face, but more importantly exercise a little common sense. As David Aaronovitch says in this (paywalled) Times article – Don’t tweet anything you wouldn’t be happy to see on a newsagents’ shelf with a picture of yourself above it. Or, I’d add that you wouldn’t say to someone down the pub if you thought they might punch you for it.

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November 21, 2012 Posted by | Creative, Social Media | , , , , , , , , | 8 Comments