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

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

Recruitment Genius: Junior Web Designer - Client Liaison

£6 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity to join a gro...

Recruitment Genius: Service Delivery Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: A Service Delivery Manager is required to join...

Recruitment Genius: Massage Therapist / Sports Therapist

£12000 - £24000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A opportunity has arisen for a ...

Ashdown Group: Practice Accountant - Bournemouth - £38,000

£32000 - £38000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A successful accountancy practice in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Errors & Omissions: A widow’s tale with an unexpected twist

John Rentoul
 

For all his faults, Russell Brand is utterly sincere, something politicians should emulate

Janet Street-Porter
The Last Word: Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Justin Gatlin knows the price of everything, the value of nothing
The saffron censorship that governs India: Why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression

The saffron censorship that governs India

Zareer Masani reveals why national pride and religious sentiment trump freedom of expression
Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Prince Charles' 'black spider' letters to be published 'within weeks'

Supreme Court rules Dominic Grieve's ministerial veto was invalid
Distressed Zayn Malik fans are cutting themselves - how did fandom get so dark?

How did fandom get so dark?

Grief over Zayn Malik's exit from One Direction seemed amusing until stories of mass 'cutting' emerged. Experts tell Gillian Orr the distress is real, and the girls need support
The galaxy collisions that shed light on unseen parallel Universe

The cosmic collisions that have shed light on unseen parallel Universe

Dark matter study gives scientists insight into mystery of space
The Swedes are adding a gender-neutral pronoun to their dictionary

Swedes introduce gender-neutral pronoun

Why, asks Simon Usborne, must English still struggle awkwardly with the likes of 's/he' and 'they'?
Disney's mega money-making formula: 'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan

Disney's mega money-making formula

'Human' remakes of cartoon classics are part of a lucrative, long-term creative plan
Lobster has gone mainstream with supermarket bargains for £10 or less - but is it any good?

Lobster has gone mainstream

Anthea Gerrie, raised on meaty specimens from the waters around Maine, reveals how to cook up an affordable feast
Easter 2015: 14 best decorations

14 best Easter decorations

Get into the Easter spirit with our pick of accessories, ornaments and tableware
Paul Scholes column: Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season

Paul Scholes column

Gareth Bale would be a perfect fit at Manchester United and could turn them into serious title contenders next season
Inside the Kansas greenhouses where Monsanto is 'playing God' with the future of the planet

The future of GM

The greenhouses where Monsanto 'plays God' with the future of the planet
Britain's mild winters could be numbered: why global warming is leaving UK chillier

Britain's mild winters could be numbered

Gulf Stream is slowing down faster than ever, scientists say
Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Government gives £250,000 to Independent appeal

Donation brings total raised by Homeless Veterans campaign to at least £1.25m
Oh dear, the most borrowed book at Bank of England library doesn't inspire confidence

The most borrowed book at Bank of England library? Oh dear

The book's fifth edition is used for Edexcel exams
Cowslips vs honeysuckle: The hunt for the UK’s favourite wildflower

Cowslips vs honeysuckle

It's the hunt for UK’s favourite wildflower