Trial by Twitter could take on a new meaning as Lord McAlpine considers taking legal action against up to 10,000 Twitter users in the UK – including celebrities, actors and journalists.
The threat of legal action relates to Twitter messages which incorrectly linked McAlpine (a former senior politician) to a recent BBC TV report on child abuse at a care home during the 1980s.
Although the BBC report did not accuse anyone by name, a Twitter frenzy sprang up as thousands of users engaged in a witch hunt – to ‘out’ an alleged pedophile, but without a shred of evidence… On the contrary, the names of many other former politicians were also tweeted as the possible abuser but eventually Lord McAlpine became the primary target of these Twitter cyber bullies.
Unfortunately for the 1,000 people who tweeted about McAlpine, and the 9,000 retweeters, the (now adult) victim of child abuse featured in the BBC report has since apologized and declared Lord McAlpine totally innocent – it was all a case of mistaken identity by the victim.
The BBC have already agreed to pay £185,000 (c $295K) to Lord McAlpine in damages and costs, presumably to avoid a more costly settlement if they were sued. Now his lawyers may widen the net and take legal action against all those individuals who either tweeted his name as the possible child abuser, retweeted such a libel or (the most contentious aspect) who tweeted ‘by innunendo’.
‘By innuendo’ refers to tweets such as that made by Sally Bercow (wife of the Speaker) which said “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.” Whilst there is no direct allegation made within the tweet, the addition of “*innocent face*” adds a somewhat smirking suggestion that would be all too clear to most readers, and could only help keep the libelous bandwagon rolling.
Libel Laws In The UK – The UK has some of the world’s strictest libel laws and freedom of speech is little defense. Unlike a regular criminal trial, the burden of proof rests primarily with the defendant – to prove that their accusation was not libelous.
In this case the allegations have already been proven false so there appears to be little hope of a successful defense by those who spread the libel on Twitter.
Impact On Twitter Users – Statements made on Twitter (and other social media/websites etc) are all subject to the same libel laws as traditional mainstream media – newspapers and TV. That may be news to some but it should be obvious if they actually stopped to think about it.
Although criminal action has been taken before, e.g. against tweets of a racist nature, the threat of thousands of individual Twitter users being sued for libel could be a watershed moment for social media – it could also become the largest libel action in British history.
Quite a shock for thousands of people who could have ruined the reputation of an innocent man and, wrongly, assumed that anything goes on the internet… Press Gazette report that “those whose Twitter messages showed malice will face the toughest action” which seems fair – I have little sympathy for Twitter users who thought they could tweet what they like and get away with it.
Even those ignorant of libel laws (which is no defense) could have imagined themselves in the position of the person they were making allegations about. How they would feel if thousands of people tweeted such evil allegations about them – without any evidence of wrongdoing?
Hopefully the publicity generated by a mass libel action may help reduce cyber bullying, trolling and vicious abuse on Twitter (and other social media) – it should certainly make people think twice before posting such comments.