Can you imagine what it must feel like to be publically branded a pedophile? That's exactly what happened to the former Tory party grandee Lord McAlpine. Is it any wonder he wanted to clear his name. In the past, if your reputation was injured the law gave you the chance to sue for slander,or in this case libel. The problem is, how can you sue tens of thousands of people who use Twitter? Obviously you can't, and that's where the problem lies.
Of course it is not possible to sue everyone for libel, however the law was written before the digital age, before self-publishing. The Lord's actions to restore his tarnished reputation are well justified. The problem is that Twitter allows us all to ‘self-publish,’ so technically all those that re-tweeted the original accusation are guilty. We have laws that do not adequately protect the innocent.
There is also the issue that people who use Twitter or other forms of social media think of it as a private conversation, when it’s not. As a ‘public’ form of interaction it must carry certain responsibilities – because of the power it has to affect lives. Or if we fail to see this, there has to be severe consequences.
The people behind social media wanted it to be perceived as individual, local, small, mimicking natural social interaction – conversations between individuals etc. This was all ‘gloss’ because really it’s an ability to talk to the world – if you can get enough people to listen. Your voice has potentially shifted from being aimed at one person, to present before many. This has made a fundamental element of human thinking much more obvious and potentially damaging: the ability to form an opinion based on what they distinguish as fact.
And many perceptions of said fact come from the news, which in this case are the solely responsible organisations. A grossly oversimplified equivalent of this would be claiming compensation from every individual who watches the broadcast of a news story and tells everyone he/she knows. Although people forget the broadcasting reach of their own voice via social networks, which leaves a grey area in the law surrounding defamation.
People in the ‘enhanced voice’ of social media have embellished this age of compensating for a lack of self-confidence by ‘making a name for themselves’ on Twitter. Growing a fan base through doing nothing but expressing your opinion is practically another way of defining a ‘celebrity’ in some cases, which is why these users are probably most in question and surveyed by the legal team.
But the fundamental difference that seems to have been ignored here is that regardless of whether people feel they have a strong influence, the concepts of ‘integrity’ and ‘credibility’ are still as strong as ever. People will still see the BBC and ITV as a higher voice than a Twitter celebrity.
Stories perceived as fact, which were not properly checked, lead to extremely dangerous information being publicised. Like any legitimate case of slander, it is those who have lacked the journalistic responsibility to fully investigate such a damaging story, and present false statements as fact who should face punishment.
Twitter is part of a reaction to the story, a by-product to public discussion. And the suing of individual users will fundamentally alter New Media Law to the detriment of the people of this country. Silencing the right to free speech based upon an opinion made about initially faulty information is not grounds to claim damages.
The negative opinion of social media held by Lord McAlpine is completely understandable, given these harrowing circumstances; but the judgments and decisions to act in a space not yet understood well by any of us show that it is not as clear-cut as to impose traditionalist laws upon it. We need an update in the face of new media, and fast.
As Prime Minister David Cameron said, defending Lord McAlpine’s good name as Philip Schofield threw it before him on live television, “there is a danger, if we’re not careful, that this can turn into a sort-of Witch hunt.”
I am the Founder and Editor-in-chief of New Rising Media. You can follow me on Twitter @MrJasonEngland.