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

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

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...

SThree: Trainee Recruitment Consultant

£18000 - £23000 per annum + Uncapped commission: SThree: Does earning a 6 figu...

Recruitment Genius: SEO Executive

£18000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

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 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
Child abuse scandal: Did a botched blackmail attempt by South African intelligence help Cyril Smith escape justice?

Did a botched blackmail attempt help Cyril Smith escape justice?

A fresh twist reveals the Liberal MP was targeted by the notorious South African intelligence agency Boss