Friday, 24 May 2013

Twitter is "inherently dangerous" says David Aaronivitch

The broadcaster and journalist David Aaronivitch (@DAaronovitch) has waded into the McAlpine/Bercow affair and has added his two cents to the debate. He's thrown up some interesting points and insights. Writing in the Times (full article here) the title and header where hard hitting, going like this:

He then said (emphases are mine):
'At the height of the speculation Sally Bercow, with 56,000 followers, had tweeted thus: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*”. 
When Lord McAlpine took Ms Bercow to court for libel, her barrister argued that she had genuinely been asking an open question about a trend that puzzled her, and “all she is asking is that someone should tell her why.” The “innocent face”, he argued, was to be understood literally. 
There is only one good English word to describe an argument like this. It was bollocks. I knew, her followers knew, every media-savvy person in the Anglophone world knew that that tweet meant “I too know that the unnamed paedophile is Lord McAlpine!” 
Mr Justice Tugendhat didn’t use the B word yesterday, but his judgment amounted to the same thing. It was clear from the ruling that the laws of libel and defamation cover online utterances, and that tweeters, bloggers and other website johnnies had better understand the rules as well as any newspaper or broadcaster does. 
Even before yesterday’s judgment the McAlpine case was beginning to have an effect. A few weeks ago the broadcaster Andrew Neil, goaded by some cyberwasp, tweeted in reply:
“I will do to you what Lord McAlpine did to Ms Bercow. Better move fast.” And then added an expletive. He was telling his tormentor that being online and semi-anonymous was not going to protect him or her from legal action. 
I have to say that the carelessness of Ms Bercow’s original tweet means she deserves to lose money and face, and there is a certain poetry about it being her beloved Twitter that unhorsed her. Much more important, though, is that her case is one of the events that marks the troublous passage of social media from adolescence to early adulthood. 
But it is by no means grown-up yet. For example, each day there are journalists tweeting links to hashtags whose timelines contain many other tweets, some of which link to websites on which famous alleged paedophiles are “named”. The result is that it almost looks as though the wildest allegations are being given some credence by authoritative sources. This is dangerous stuff and something bad will result from it sooner or later unless we find a way of dealing with it. Mark Old Aaron’s words.
Two things to note from this.

Firstly, David Aaronovitch's language chimes with that used by John Cooper QC (@John_Cooper_QC) and other commentators who say that social media is in it's infancy.

Speaking with @Charonqc on a podcast, John Cooper QC said:

"Before straight-jacketing social media with guidelines and regulation and so on, we really should allow society to breath. Let the baby be born as it were before we start restricting it."

Vicky Beeching, speaking on The Big Questions in April 2013 said:

"Firstly, we need to remember that social media is in its infancy. It’s so young. Twitter has turned 7, YouTube has turned 8. We’re literally taking baby steps. So we can’t panic and say it’s out of control.
What David Aaronovitch has done is to suggest that social media has now passed the threshold from being an unimpeachable infant, to now being a young adolescent who now must face up to the responsibilities of adulthood.

The second thing that David Aaronovitch has done is to suggest that social media must be regulated; echoing what McAlpine solicitor Andrew Reid said earlier in the day (May 24 2013).

This blog post originally appeared on Twitter for Lawyers here.

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