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

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Read Next
George Osborne appearing on the BBC's Andrew Marr Show on Sunday, 5 July 2015  

George Osborne says benefits should be capped at £20,000 to meet average earnings – but working families take home £31,500

Ellie Mae O'Hagan
The BBC has agreed to fund the £650m annual cost of providing free television licences for the over-75s  

Osborne’s assault on the BBC is doing Murdoch’s dirty work

James Cusick James Cusick
Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
Srebrenica 20 years after the genocide: Why the survivors need closure

Bosnia's genocide, 20 years on

No-one is admitting where the bodies are buried - literally and metaphorically
How Comic-Con can make or break a movie: From Batman vs Superman to Star Wars: Episode VII

Power of the geek Gods

Each year at Comic-Con in San Diego, Hollywood bosses nervously present blockbusters to the hallowed crowd. It can make or break a movie
What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?

Perfect match

What do strawberries and cream have to do with tennis?
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Wimbledon 2015: Team Murray firing on all cylinders for SW19 title assault

Team Murray firing on all cylinders for title assault

Coaches Amélie Mauresmo and Jonas Bjorkman aiming to make Scot Wimbledon champion again
Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!

Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

Vasek Pospisil must ignore tiredness and tell himself: I'm in the quarter-final, baby!
Ashes 2015: Angus Fraser's top 10 moments from previous series'

Angus Fraser's top 10 Ashes moments

He played in five series against Australia and covered more as a newspaper correspondent. From Waugh to Warne and Hick to Headley, here are his highlights
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high