Twitter etiquette and the case of Lord Mcalpine

The case of Lord McAlpine raises issues of Twitter etiquetteThe case of wrongful accusations against Conservative peer Lord McAlpine flying around the Internet has shone a whole new light on the issue of digital etiquette. Until recently, it seemed that people still thought that things they said online were hidden away, untouched by the law.

Twitter may have busted Ryan Giggs’ Super Injunction, but it isn’t the Wild West. While the infamous Twitter Joke Trial showed the law being applied to Twitter in the absolutely worst way, if it were to become completely untouchable it would lose its usefulness as a news and information resource.

The issue is one of legality, not of offence, as far as I am concerned. It’s certainly wrong to accuse someone of paedophilia online, seemingly without evidence, but should we be arresting people for posting images most of us find distasteful, as with the poppy burning recently? I’m not so sure.

A lot of the problem stems from the newness of the medium, and the increasing number of users on the service. Many people on Twitter still don’t quite know how to behave on it.

It’s lucky then that Times columnist David Aaronovitch has come up with some top tips:

Firstly, he says that “Twitter IS publishing.” He’s right. Twitter has 140 million users worldwide (10 million in the UK,) posting thoughts and content continually.  Once you press ‘Tweet’ those words and pictures are up for all to see. You might not get royalties, but this is publishing, just not as we’ve known it.

The Times also point out a stunning lack of knowledge on libel, which was perfectly shown by people across the fame spectrum in the McAlpine case:

“I have had grown men telling me on Twitter this week that repeating a libel is not itself libel (it is) or that if you don’t directly say X is a rampant Y, but just hint at it then it doesn’t count (it does).”

Aaronovitch also helpfully points out that trying to be rude semi-privately on Twitter doesn’t really work if you use a trending hashtag! Continuing on the subject of rudeness, Aaronovitch rightly says that the easiest way to deal with trolls is just to block them, and sharing your anger online on gives pleasure to the people offending you in the first place.

No tweeting while drunk is also a rule that really should be obeyed too. That 3am drunk tweet really is only funny to you.

The most important rule though?

“Lastly, the golden rule, the rule of rules. Never, ever tweet anything about anybody that you wouldn’t say to their face. There’s a REASON why you wouldn’t say it to their face. They might hit you, or sue you. So why would you want to tweet it?”

Why indeed?

  • Terese Bird

    I think there are several issues here, one of which is the definition of libel. In the US, to be guilty of libel, the communicator must know that the accusation is not true. In the UK, as I understand it and I am happy to be shown to be wrong, that knowledge of untruth is not part of it… all that matters is that the reputation of the accused has been besmirched. That is an important difference in the case of McAlpine. It seems to me that most of the tweets were comments on the Newsnight broadcast which hinted at McAlpine. If a trusted news source such as the BBC is implying involvement, and a twitter-er comments on that, is that truly libel? I would say no, and I do wonder what a court of law would say. This also points out: ok maybe Twitter is a kind of publishing. But clearly someone tweeting cannot be seen to be doing the same thing as what Newsnight does, with all of its resources and public funds and public mandate.
    This McAlpine thing touches on issues which seem to me to be deeply rooted in UK society, and I wonder if the Levenson report will now include an extra section about ‘old media’, the government, the police, *and* social media.