Twitter has changed the rules of the game

Users have to be more careful than pub gossips

Share
Related Topics

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

React Now

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

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform