Please note: This is not, as one fruitcake on Twitter claimed last night, an argument in favour of censorship. That should be perfectly clear to anyone who takes the time to read it properly.
Twitter is not the Wild West and, sooner rather than later, the rule of law will be imposed, and that day is getting pretty close. It is, however, worth pointing out that most people on Twitter are law-abiding – not that you’d get that impression from the press.
Lord McAlpine , if we can believe newspaper reports, plans to sue Twitterati who tweeted unkindly and libellously about him last week. He also – and this is where it goes off the rails in my view, plans to sue retweeters too.
Doesn’t he first have to prove intent?
And wasn’t the name of McAlpine linked to the child abuse case, and released into the public domain, by the police? In which case, can it be a civil offence to repeat something already in the public domain when at the time its libellous nature was unknown? I don’t see how.
As for retweeting on Twitter, it means nothing. Hell, some people retweet every bloody thing that pops into their timeline, it’s like an obsession, but the thing about retweeting is that simply doing so indicates neither agreement or disagreement with the tweet. It’s no worse that someone watching the Newsnight fiasco, and calling someone in from another room to watch it. That, in essence, is all the merit a retweet has – it’s just saying, hey, this is interesting. Unless it’s qualified with an appended comment.
And what of those who retweet by accident? I do that a lot, as my timeline moves so fast, between the intent to click and actually clicking, there’s often a different tweet under my cursor. It’s all too easy, and easy to overlook too. (This is not me preparing a defence by the way – I don’t believe I’ve retweeted about McAlpine even accidentally – I stayed well away from the whole bag of worms, except possibly as it regards Savile).
If you append a comment agreeing with a derogatory tweet, though, then that’s a game-changer, and you’ll be considered as guilty as the originator, assuming their guilt can be established.
I did turn up one nugget of information, though. The DPP has said that in the case of a tweet being criminal, retweets will also be deemed criminal. So the next time some clown demands a revolution RIGHT NOW! on Twitter, think twice before you RT, because if he gets his collar felt so will you. And as you can now be busted for burning a poppy and posting a photo online, that risk is probably far higher than it was a year ago, or even six months. Think about that poppy. You get one by making a contribution to charity, effectively buying it. This makes it your property – it is now, though against the law for you to set fire to a few bits of plastic that you own, and photograph it. And this isn’t a police state? Jesus wept!
As for the idea of suing Twitter users for libel, I have to say, it’s long overdue – I made my views on Trial by Twitter (which is libellous by definition), quite clear – and I’m sure many female users, especially those who are in any way prominent and have been viciously libelled and abused, would agree.
But what does McAlpine hope to achieve by suing moronic Twitter users who think the law doesn’t apply to them? Damages? Good luck with that, many haven’t got so much as a pot to piss in, and a surprising number might well be kids. One of the first trolls on my blog was, I swear, a pre-teen girl.
If his is a genuine effort to impose the rule of law on Twitter, then I would find it very hard to argue against it, and making people toe the libel line is not an infringement of free speech – the freedom to say what you like also comes with a corollary – the freedom to accept the consequences of doing so.
In real life** that might put you on the wrong end of a sound kicking, but when people hide behind anonymity and keyboards, and are probably hundreds, even thousands, of miles away anyway, the law is the only recourse.
**When it comes to what is acceptable online, I apply a personal test, called the “Smack in the mouth test”. If, IRL, saying something would result in my getting a justifiable smack in the mouth, then it’s not something I would say online. It’s not exactly rocket science – treat others as you’d have them treat you.
Anyway, as far as I’m concerned, my online existence is as much real life as any other part of my existence, just the medium is different, and it’s when people don’t realise, or forget, that, that it all goes to hell in a handbasket. A conversation on Twitter is as much real life as a conversation in the pub – the only difference is the protagonists are many miles apart and linked by computers and the Web. Behave as you would in their physical presence and it’s hard to screw up.
I still don’t see how it’s worth McAlpine’s while, though – is suing everyone who tweeted and retweeted about him really feasible? Personally, I have no memory of having seen any tweets about him at all, but let’s say there are a couple of thousand people involved who have, he believes, maligned him – not an unreasonable number given the millions on Twitter – some of whom might well be scattered across the world.
That’s a couple of thousand court cases, quite possibly many of them in foreign, possibly hostile, jurisdictions, which might regard McAlpine rather less charitably than British courts. It’s going to cost an obscene amount of money, with very little hope of recouping more than a very small percentage of the outlay in damages – if people haven’t got it, no matter how strong his case is, he can’t have it.
Most people I know on Twitter are in a similar position to me – unable to work because of chronic illness and/or disability. None of us, I hasten to add, have taken a swipe at McAlpine (to the best of my knowledge – I think we all have more sense), but let’s say one of us had, and gets sued. OK, let’s say it’s me (it’s not, pay attention!), because I know my financial situation, not anyone else’s.
I’m a disabled pensioner, having been on benefits since 1985 (disability benefits since 1986). I have no capital, I don’t own my home, or have a car – I have no assets beyond a computer and a few consumer electronics. So, apart from a certain vindictive pleasure, what would McAlpine gain from suing me? Nothing, except a huge bill. OK, he could bankrupt me, but it still wouldn’t get him any money. Even if he sent in the bailiffs, he’d be doing well to get a penny on the pound, and their fees would add to his financial burden.
So I cannot, unless there are some closet millionaires on Twitter slagging him off – yeah, right – see any advantage in McAlpine suing anyone but the most persistent offenders. I’m not saying it doesn’t need doing, but in this instance his declared aim of suing every bugger he possibly can is self-destructive over-kill.
He can, though, at little cost to himself, threaten to embroil corporate Twitter in every court case he’s planning unless the miscreants accounts are shut down, and that, more easily than the law, I think, can be extended to embrace retweeters, either deliberate or accidental.
Of course, legally, corporate Twitter should tell him to bugger off and come back with a bunch of court orders, but the threat of being dragged into interminable and expensive litigation might well prove irresistible. If I were McAlpine, I think I’d see pretty quickly that it was the most cost-effective option.
Of course, at the heart of this problem is my personal Twitter bête noir – the tendency of far too many people to make totally unsubstantiated statements (yes, I know there’s a character limit, but until the day Twitter kills off TwitLonger, that’s an entirely notional limit).
If you tweet that Mr X is a child molester, citing an article in the Daily Rag which clearly says as much (and keep a copy of it, as newspaper articles can change), then it ceases to be your opinion, but you repeating theirs in good faith.
And that applies to a huge number of things. You say the moon is made of green cheese? That’s just your opinion and makes you a fruitcake. Say that the moon is made of green cheese, and cite a favourably-peer-reviewed scientific paper, and you’re in the clear.
If you are going to assert that some bugger is a child molester, then you’d better be damn sure of your facts and cite your source(s), which had better be unimpeachable and verifiable (not some lunatic fringe website), or someone will hit you between the eyes with the full weight of the law (or possibly a baseball bat).
Twitter does need to set its house in order – freedom of speech does not extend to being able to say whatever you like without consequences. There are always consequences in life, for every action, and some of them can be painful.
Stay within the law and no-one can touch you. And watch what you retweet – don’t let anyone drag you down.