In the Tower of Babel that is Twitter, silence descends. Quite right, too

Tweeters used to shrug and say, "Well that's just the internet", but Lord McAlpine's solicitors may have just changed Twitter for ever

Share

As news of poor, wronged Lord McAlpine’s £185,000 payout by the BBC – and his legal firm’s intention to pursue every single Twitter user who slandered him – played out on respected news channels this Thursday, the most curious thing descended over my favourite social network: a kind of hush.

OK, aside from the odd muted grumble about wealthy McAlpine becoming ever wealthier, and the odd meek musing on how he could donate his windfall to Children in Need. But otherwise Twitter seemed to be washing its hair. How strange? This news item ticked every box on the instant Twitter brouhaha checklist: the BBC, “fat cats”, the licence fee, sex allegations, the headiness of Sally Bercow, the pompousness of George Monbiot, freedom of speech and so on.

I’ve been a Twitter user for five years. I know how these things work. But where were the “Twitchfork mobs” now? Or those brave internet “publish-and-be-damned” warriors? Where were those delightful living-in their-mother’s-box-bedroom trolls? Or the amateur Radio 4 comedy writers, or the frothy-mouthed freedom-of-speech defenders? In internet parlance, they’d thought WTF and decided to STFU.

Andrew Reid, Lord McAlpine’s solicitor, may well have changed the face of Twitter for ever. Reid has said that a team of experts has collated any offending Twitter messages on McAlpine – including tweets, retweets and deleted tweets – and plans to pursue every single person involved. “Let it be a lesson,” he said, “to everybody that trial by Twitter or trial by the internet is a very nasty way of hurting people unnecessarily and it will cost people a lot of money.”

To me, Reid’s words felt like a social networking game-changer because – and wishing to sound the opposite of glib here – Reid actually sounded like he had a grip on that which he was spouting off about. Like he’d actually set eyes on a Twitter homepage, or had even sent a tweet, or was at least employing bright young things who had.

Until this week, legal threats against Twitter – for example, during the Ryan Giggs/Imogen Thomas superinjunction case – have had the risible feel of King Canute shouting at the sea. Shutting up Twitter seemed like a pipe dream. The matter was too big, too confusing, too brimming with arduous uncharted legal territory. And more than this, Twitter is the home and the weapon of choice of the educated troublemaker.

When Sally Bercow (58,000 followers) simply tweeted McAlpine’s name “mischievously” at a time when his name had become a trending topic, she clearly believed she was on safe ground. Same, too, for Iain Overton, managing editor of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism, which jointly produced the Newsnight report, who tweeted, “If all goes well we’ve got a Newsnight out tonight about a very senior political figure who is a paedophile.”

But then here comes Reid intending to open a can of old-school legal whoop ass on this brave, fresh, new technology. Reid sounded heavily briefed, ninja-focused, and was, that day, in the process of successfully extracting £185k from the BBC, not for saying McAlpine’s name, but for fanning flames which led to people tweeting his name.

Reid sees everyone who flocked to the scene pitching in flippant 140-character jokes, titbits and unfounded grot as part of the problem. “Twitter is not just a closed coffee shop among friends. It goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and you must take responsibility for it.” He added: “It is not a place where you can gossip and say things with impunity, and we are about to demonstrate that.” To me, this sounded like the piano in my favourite cyber speakeasy having the lid slammed firmly shut.

Is this the death of the Twitchfork trial? What McAlpine has suffered – regardless of the severity of the allegation made against him – has been until now a pretty standard Twitter process. Trial by Twitter happens to people, famous and non-famous, brands and businesses every single day, equally vicious and anger-making, for the most flippant and throwaway of reasons. From my experience, columnists and writers get it a lot. It feels like being in a schoolyard and the school bully punching your face in and the world putting down its lunches and running, chortling and howling, trying to join in.

Typically, when I watch other people getting the drubbing, the rumpus begins with a nugget of information displeasing someone. For example, “Have you heard what Tulisa said on This Morning?” “Have you heard that this bus company refused a pregnant woman a seat?” The “facts” about the case will be trumpeted, initially by tweeters who only have a few followers, then eventually retweeted by tweeters with thousands of followers, before a wildfire of incandescent rage over something very little takes hold.

Quickly the Twitter timeline gets clogged with abuse, jokes, attempts at debate, attempts to defend the person/company/ incident and thousands of abusive tweets being sent to the relevant Twitter account. The key words become a trending topic. More tweeters gather, confused and excited. Some tweeters will suggest, “Um, this is maybe slightly illegal?”, to be shot down furiously from the freedom-of-speech warriors.

And then the blogs begin, roughly cobbled together blogs, which will offer a great personal insight into the incident, typically without fact-checking anything that occurred. The blog will be tweeted; counter-blogs will appear and then threads on the Mumsnet messageboard and a dozen other open message-boards full of opinions on the very shonky facts. After about five days, a whole new set of late adopters will begin noticing the story, which leads to a constant trickle of abuse. It’s like being trapped in an echo chamber. And until now, most Tweeters would shrug and say, “Well that’s just the internet.” I have a feeling Andrew Reid might disagree.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - Covent Garden, central London - £45k - £55k

£45000 - £55000 per annum + 30 days holiday: Ashdown Group: Finance Manager - ...

Ashdown Group: Systems Administrator - Lancashire - £30,000

£28000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: 3rd Line Support Engineer / Network ...

Recruitment Genius: Graduate Web Developer

£26000 - £33000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Web Developer is required to ...

Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Developer - London - £45k

£45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: PeopleSoft Application Support & Development ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Isis in Iraq: Even if Iraqi troops take back Saddam’s city of Tikrit they will face bombs and booby traps

Patrick Cockburn
The Royal Mint Engraver Jody Clark with his new coinage portrait, alongside the four previous incarnations  

Queen's new coin portrait: Second-rate sculpture makes her look characterless

Michael Glover
The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

The difference between America and Israel? There isn’t one

Netanyahu knows he can get away with anything in America, says Robert Fisk
Families clubbing together to build their own affordable accommodation

Do It Yourself approach to securing a new house

Community land trusts marking a new trend for taking the initiative away from developers
Head of WWF UK: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

David Nussbaum: We didn’t send Cameron to the Arctic to see green ideas freeze

The head of WWF UK remains sanguine despite the Government’s failure to live up to its pledges on the environment
Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Author Kazuo Ishiguro on being inspired by shoot-outs and samurai

Set in a mythologised 5th-century Britain, ‘The Buried Giant’ is a strange beast
With money, corruption and drugs, this monk fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’

Money, corruption and drugs

The monk who fears Buddhism in Thailand is a ‘poisoned fruit’
America's first slavery museum established at Django Unchained plantation - 150 years after slavery outlawed

150 years after it was outlawed...

... America's first slavery museum is established in Louisiana
Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

Kelly Clarkson: How I snubbed Simon Cowell and become a Grammy-winning superstar

The first 'American Idol' winner on how she manages to remain her own woman – Jane Austen fascination and all
Tony Oursler on exploring our uneasy relationship with technology with his new show

You won't believe your eyes

Tony Oursler's new show explores our uneasy relationship with technology. He's one of a growing number of artists with that preoccupation
Ian Herbert: Peter Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

Moores must go. He should never have been brought back to fail again

The England coach leaves players to find solutions - which makes you wonder where he adds value, says Ian Herbert
War with Isis: Fears that the looming battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

The battle for Mosul will unleash 'a million refugees'

Aid agencies prepare for vast exodus following planned Iraqi offensive against the Isis-held city, reports Patrick Cockburn
Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

Yvette Cooper: We can't lose the election. There's too much on the line

The shadow Home Secretary on fighting radical Islam, protecting children, and why anyone in Labour who's thinking beyond May must 'sort themselves out'
A bad week for the Greens: Leader Natalie Bennett's 'car crash' radio interview is followed by Brighton council's failure to set a budget due to infighting

It's not easy being Green

After a bad week in which its leader had a public meltdown and its only city council couldn't agree on a budget vote, what next for the alternative party? It's over to Caroline Lucas to find out
Gorillas nearly missed: BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter

Gorillas nearly missed

BBC producers didn't want to broadcast Sir David Attenborough's famed Rwandan encounter
Downton Abbey effect sees impoverished Italian nobles inspired to open their doors to paying guests for up to €650 a night

The Downton Abbey effect

Impoverished Italian nobles are opening their doors to paying guests, inspired by the TV drama
China's wild panda numbers have increased by 17% since 2003, new census reveals

China's wild panda numbers on the up

New census reveals 17% since 2003