Twitter has changed the rules of the game

Users have to be more careful than pub gossips
  • @johnrentoul

Twitter is a wonderful addition to journalism, democracy and life. I think most of the fears about it allowing a tide of libels to sweep over the internet are unfounded. In the case of the Conservative peer who is seeking damages from Twitter users for naming him, wrongly, as a paedophile, the allegation was made by a mainstream media organisation, the BBC – although Newsnight didn't name him but talked of a "leading Tory politician of the Thatcher era". It was as a result of its broadcast that the peer's name spread so widely on Twitter.

It is probable that, had the Newsnight report been broadcast five years ago, when Twitter was just starting to grow, the peer would have been named in internet forums or on blogs, and roughly the same sequence of events might have unfolded, albeit more slowly.

Had Newsnight put out its report 15 years ago, however, when the internet was very young, on a dial-up connection, and Alta Vista was the cutting edge in search engines, things might have turned out differently. Had a scurrilous magazine printed the name, it, rather than BBC, would have been threatened with legal action. But it still would have been a bad piece of journalism and it would have been wrong for the BBC to have broadcast it.

Twitter does not change morality, therefore. Nor does it change the law, although it might feel different because it has to adapt to new technology. Twitter is covered by the law of defamation, just as a conversation in the pub is. People don't normally think of pub conversations being subject to the law, but if they say something that damages someone's reputation or threatens violence, they can be sued. Technically, there are different tests for slander and libel, but the principle is similar in both cases. Obviously – or perhaps not obviously enough – Twitter users have to be more careful than pub gossips about saying damaging things because Twitter is more like a publication than a private conversation.

People have discovered the hard way that if you email salacious details of your private life to office colleagues, it is all too easy for it to go global if it escapes your trusted circle.

Apologies from well-known Twitter users for having named the Tory peer ought to be a useful lesson to the rest of us. My view is that Twitter is like the rest of communication, only faster and more democratic. It is not a Wild West of anonymous trolls – on the contrary, as some of those who tweeted the Tory peer's name are finding out, its users can be traced. Untruths may spread faster through it – although these usually come from people who work as journalists – and rebuttals and corrections spread faster, too.

Twitter can be no more uninvented than television, but we shouldn't want to uninvent it. Trust people with responsibility and they will, on the whole, be responsible. David Allen Green, the New Statesman journalist and lawyer who defended Paul Chambers in the "Twitter joke" trial, said last week that those who want to regulate Twitter deploy the same arguments as those who wanted to deny people the vote.

John Rentoul is Public Affairs News Political Tweeter of the Year