Twitter law: A little bird told me

It's a melting pot of fact, fiction and fantasy, where anyone can say what they like without fear of the consequences. So is Twitter making an ass of the law – or of the people who use it?
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I find celebrity gossip excruciatingly dull. I don't rail against it viciously; I have plenty of friends who have encyclopaedic knowledge of who's doing what and to whom and I neither excise them from my life nor instruct them to ignore the carnal urges of footballers and pay greater heed to the plight of Libyan refugees instead. But for me, it's a total shoulder shrug. I'd be more likely to buy a copy of The Watchtower than Hello!, and my fascination with the extra-marital activities of the stars ranks somewhere alongside amateur figure skating, apple-bobbing or basalt.

But on Sunday the details of various super-injunctions appeared on Twitter and I found myself browsing them during an idle moment. As the Twittersphere (sorry) became exercised and retweets of the link started piling up, others began to get cross. "Why would you retweet that?" asked one. And it was a fair enough question. Regardless of the revelations – true or otherwise – the way social media are currently pushing super-injuncted facts within the ambit of casual onlookers is undeniably fascinating.

But by linking to the information, you draw people's attention to things that are the business of neither you nor anyone you know. With next-to-no effort, you become unwittingly part of the rumour mill.

The Twitter account containing some super-injuncted material sprung into life just before 2pm on Sunday. Some of the rumours therein had been floating around Twitter for weeks, but to find them you really had to be looking for them; armed with the surname of someone you suspected to be involved and the correct spelling of the word "injunction" you could unearth an unsubstantiated rumour posted by a complete stranger within a few seconds. The reason the account caused such a stir was the fact that it collated neatly all that information; suddenly, people like myself who would never have bothered searching for gossip could read it all in 20 seconds – a neat, one-stop shop. Gossip is all it was: a pseudonymous source posting unverifiable facts. But the very presence of the words "super" and "injunction" on the page immediately lent them additional weight. Jemima Khan, one of the people named in one of the tweets, immediately did what thousands of others had done – linked to the offending account – and immediately denounced the rumours that she'd just helped to spread. "OMG – Rumour that I have a super-injunction preventing publication of 'intimate' photos of me and Jeremy Clarkson. NOT TRUE!".

On Monday morning she awoke, assessed the developing situation and posted again: "I've woken up trapped in a bloody nightmare." She also posted that Clarkson had sent a text message of his own, saying: "It's odd. I'm sure I'd remember if any photos of us existed."

The potency and power of Twitter as a fast-moving source of information and misinformation is almost beyond belief. Millions of us glance at it casually every few minutes, looking for interesting blog posts, breaking news, or replies from friends to that query we posted asking for Thai restaurant recommendations in the Wolverhampton area. A fascinating nugget of information tweeted by someone, reposted by 10 people and again by 10 of each of their friends may only have been physically put out there by 111 people in total, but can be viewed easily by tens of thousands. If someone famous is involved in the retweeting, call it hundreds of thousands, or even millions. There's no chance of stopping the information juggernaut once it gets going; it's a virtually unsilenceable medium. The company behind Twitter is keen to avoid becoming a censor, not least because policing the monster it has created is virtually impossible. "There are tweets we do remove, such as illegal tweets and spam," it said in a statement. "However, we... strive not to remove tweets on the basis of their content." With deletion not an option, firefighting any rumours with denials is the next obvious move, but you have no guarantee that your denials will be read by the same people who read the accusations. The situation is complicated still further with a preponderance of half-baked jokes to create an unholy soup of fact and fantasy; it becomes impossible to know what's true, but instead of turning to traditional news sources for confirmation, many just choose to believe what they read. Believe it and repeat it: it's just something about Twitter.

This is driven partly by an urge to be first with news. With news comes kudos, additional followers, recognition, even admiration. You – little old you – sitting in your bedroom, tapping at your smartphone, managing to steal a march on the global news networks. But you're playing a percentage game, because to be first with news (as rolling TV channels have found occasionally to their cost) requires you to be cavalier with the process of checking your facts. Yes, you might be first with news, but you'll often be first with complete drivel. In the past few months Twitter has broken the "news" of the deaths of Kanye West, Jeff Goldblum, Bollywood legend Shashi Kapoor, Mick Jagger, Justin Bieber and, on some half a dozen occasions including this weekend, Margaret Thatcher. None of them was true. Indeed, you sometimes wondered whether those who tweeted so triumphantly the news of Thatcher's demise for the third or fourth time were hoping that if they did it often enough, it would somehow force her to shuffle off this mortal coil.

It didn't. But they'll keep doing it.

Which might prompt you to say, well, never believe anything you read on Twitter. But sometimes Twitter gets it spectacularly right, the rumours turn out to be true and everyone involved is able to give themselves a collective pat on the back. It somehow legitimises this much-derided service that we've helped to build, cancelling out all the occasions when we were criticised for getting it wrong. In the aftermath of the operation to kill or capture Osama bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld's chief of staff, Keith Urbahn, posted a tweet at 10.24pm Eastern time, bringing the news of his death from a "reputable person". "Hot damn," he concluded, wistfully. In the subsequent hour, analysts Socialflow estimate that Urbahn's announcement generated some 15 million tweets on the subject – tweets that, of course, had been read by an even larger number. This news had, for 60 minutes, been generated by us. So when President Obama made the official announcement on television at 11.30pm Eastern time, millions were able to murmur smugly: "Yeah, we know, dude. We read it on Twitter."

Of course, we'd also read tweets about Bin Laden's death on a number of occasions before last week; it just happened to be right this time. But each time we stumble across something that seems to be important, we feel the urge to pass it on because we think we're providing a service to others. We rarely stop to think that the initial tweet might have been borne out of malice (such as the ones sent last year in an attempt to destabilise the Venezuelan financial system and create a run on its banks) or, alternatively, just total confusion. Back in January, misinformation about a police training exercise taking place in central London led to snowballing panic that a gunman was on the loose on Oxford Street; someone on Twitter merely asking the question: "Is there a gunman on Oxford Street?" generated warnings from well-meaning friends to anyone on Oxford Street to stay indoors and, once again, this malevolent, roaming, gun-toting marksman became strangely real. This was despite the fact that a gunman was as conspicuous by his absence on Oxford Street as Ziggy Stardust. Later that day, someone tweeted that the confusion had been caused by a girl mentioning a "shoot" (ie a photography session) taking place in the area. This wasn't true either, but thousands took the bait, passed it on and still believe it to be true, repeating it at dinner parties as a hilarious example of online groupthink, not realising that their story is a doubly hilarious example of online groupthink.

This collective retweeting of information is a curiously benign act that can have far-reaching consequences. It's not like Chinese whispers. You're not even repeating the information, you're just catching the attention of a bunch of people you know, tilting your head in the other direction and saying, "Blimey, would you look at what that person just said." And when it gathers steam and ends up "trending" (ie, appearing in the list of most talked-about topics on Twitter) it's curiously exciting to be part of. Of course, if the information is dodgy – like, for example, rumours of David Beckham or Nicolas Sarkozy having affairs, free flights to Haiti being offered by American Airlines, or the spine-chilling rumour that Kian Egan might have left Westlife – you shrug when it's denied and say well, you were merely a signpost.

If, however, said tweets end up having a tangible positive effect – for example when the energy company Trafigura abandoned its injunction partly as a result of the information becoming common knowledge online – the Twittersphere proudly takes a bow.

I wouldn't blame anyone reading this who doesn't have a Twitter account and who doesn't contribute to this colossal glut of data for thinking that the Twittersphere doesn't deserve any applause; that being involved is a spectacular waste of time and energy. Even those of us who value it hugely as a means of exchanging information, meeting people, raising awareness or just shooting the breeze, recognise its enormous capacity to irritate, annoy and upset.

There's no real comeback if a bunch of people get it wrong. Unlike Aesop's Boy Who Cried Wolf and Hilaire Belloc's Matilda, the chances of your erroneous, collective screeching landing you in hot water seem to be covered by sheer weight of numbers. Of course, the law does require us, as it does the traditional media, not to commit acts of harassment, obscenity or libel. But you can't prosecute several thousand people, particularly when a huge proportion of them are anonymous or pseudonymous. It's highly unlikely, for example, that the creator of the Twitter account containing the allegations will ever have to face the music for posting them. And as for those who linked to it, well it's impossible to legislate against that kind of thing.

After all, nowhere in the terms and conditions you agree to when signing up to Twitter does it prohibit you from occasionally being a bit thoughtless.