Sex, Lies and Twitter

Last month, the BBC erroneously linked a prominent politician to a sexual abuse scandal. The network didn’t name the politician — but thousands of people on Twitter did.

This prompted the politician, Alistair McAlpine, to vow legal action against those who tweeted or retweeted about the allegations. McAlpine has identified about 20 high-profile Tweeters, including the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons and a columnist for The Guardian. That’s not all: McAlpine also wants reparations, or at least a formal acknowledgement of wrongdoing, from as many as 10,000 other Twitter users who chimed in. His lawyers are working on how to get it.

The kerfuffle has created what journalist Peter Wilson calls “the greatest legal challenge in the six-year history of the social networking service.”

Listen to a discussion with Wilson, Europe correspondent for The Australian, about the case, the cultural and legal differences that helped create the situation, and the havoc social media have created for reports like the BBC’s.

Download the podcast (17:51 minutes) or use the player:

Here are some excerpts:

TechNewsWorld: One thing that’s interesting is to look at the actual tweets of the high-profile people. One of them, Sally Bercow, is the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, and she has — or she had — 56,000 Twitter followers. I think she has since deleted her account. But the tweet that kind of got her in trouble was, “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*”. So it seems like an innocuous quote. And then there was The Guardian columnist George Monbiot. He wrote, “I looked up Lord McAlpine on t’internet. It says the strangest things.”

Peter Wilson: They were at least legally savvy enough to know that they needed to be careful. They didn’t want to just come out and straight-out make the accusation against Lord McAlpine. But they were trying to be clever. They were trying to send a message to their followers saying, “Oh, jeez, there’s some prominent conservative politician who’s been molesting children. Golly, I see Lord McAlpine’s getting a lot of attention on Twitter at the moment.”

It’s something that newspapers have traditionally done. There’s a real tradition of, if the newspaper wants to share some information with its readers but for legal reason can’t, then you can be a bit clever. So in this case a newspaper might run an article saying, “An unnamed conservative politician faces terrible allegations.” And then at the bottom of the page, on the same page, quite unrelated, you just find some excuse to run a story about Lord McAlpine. You know, it’s got no ostensible reason to be there, but you just find a reason to put the story on the page and you call him a prominent, former, Thatcher-era politician who just bought a new house in Italy. And you send a signal to your [readers].

In this case, all of those old traditions and nudge-nudge, wink-wink media techniques have been blown apart by Twitter, by the fact that there are thousands of new players who wanted to leap in and share this information without realizing the legal costs.

TNW: I’m curious what the law says in the UK about the act of publishing, which you brought up earlier, and the distinction between John Q. Tweeter versus a legitimate outlet. And it seems like traditionally, the media outlet is indeed responsible and they need to own up to everything they publish. But the rules might be a little less stringent for your average Twitter user. Where does the UK come down on drawing that distinction between who’s responsible for what, and what needs to be factual?

Gray Areas

Wilson: Well, there are gray areas. The law is gray in some way, but crystal clear in that it is still publishing. And defamation is when you damage somebody’s reputation to two or more people, either in conversation, which is slander, or in writing, which is libel. Both are forms of defamation.

So the gray area is simply the mechanical thing: Where are you publishing? When you put something on the Internet or on Twitter, what’s the jurisdiction? If you want to sue a newspaper in England, which is a very lucrative jurisdiction for defamation because newspapers don’t have freedom of speech protections that they enjoy in America … you’ve got to establish that the defamation was actually published in England. Even if you can find a newspaper somewhere that publishing 10 copies, sold 10 copies in England … you can say, “Right, you’ve published in England!”

Now the problem with the Internet is, you know, where is the act of publishing happening? Is it on the server? Does it depend on the country that the server is in? Does it depend on the country that you’re in when you upload the defamation to the Internet? Or does it depend on the country that the reader is in when they download the information from the Internet? Where does the actual act of publishing occur. That’s the gray area. But when it comes to the simply definition of, “Can you defame on Twitter?” that’s not gray at all. That’s crystal clear.

TNW: You mentioned how there might be a cultural or national difference with the way people view this stuff, and I wanted to ask you about that in particular. Looking at the tweets I mentioned earlier — as an America who was kind of weaned on American social media — it seems like these are pretty light — you know, light criticisms. Is there a different philosophy about social media and about Twitter in particular in the UK where these things are not seen as so lighthearted?

Wilson: There’s a different cultural perspective to freedom of speech. You know, America is certainly a more open public debate. But I don’t think these are light-hearted. In any culture, to say that someone is molesting children in a children’s home is pretty serious stuff.

TNW: Sure, sure. But the tweets didn’t say that, I guess is my point. You’re absolutely right that the allegations and the story — that’s extreme, and very much a situation of defamation.

Wilson: But they identified him [on Twitter]. It was in a context where everyone knows, and it was after the BBC had reported that there’s a prominent politician who had done these things. So to do anything to identify the person, once the allegation is out there, then all you have to do is float his name.Then you’re doing the one thing that the BBC didn’t do: You’re identifying the person. And that’s the fascinating thing legally here, is the BBC didn’t do anything wrong. They never identified him. Other people identified him for them. Under old-styled defamation laws, the BBC did the right thing.

David Vranicar is a freelance journalist and author ofThe Lost Graduation: Stepping off campus and into a crisis. You can check out hisECT News archive here, and you can email him at david[dot]vranicar[at]newsroom[dot]ectnews[dot]com.

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