A watershed moment against the sadistic Twitter mob
Published in: Daily Mail
At last! The legal action set in train by Lord McAlpine against those who used Twitter to defame him looks set to achieve more than merely vindicating his unjustly damaged reputation.
This may be a watershed moment in which the mob rule that until now has been allowed to rampage unchecked on the internet may finally be brought to heel.
Lord McAlpine is preparing to sue for libel a long list of people who falsely suggested on Twitter and other social media outlets that he was a paedophile.
This followed a rogue item on BBC2’s Newsnight which claimed that a former top adviser to Mrs Thatcher had been a paedophile and, without accusing the former Tory party treasurer by name, laid a trail which led people straight to him.
Among those who the wronged peer is reportedly preparing to sue are Sally Bercow, the wife of the Commons Speaker, Guardian journalist George Monbiot and comedian Alan Davies.
It is a measure of the harm and distress caused by Twitter and internet sites that Lord McAlpine’s actions are enjoying support and sympathy even within the media. Such approbation is particularly notable because his action is a double-edged sword.
For he is using the law of libel, which in Britain heavily loads the dice against free expression.
This law raises the bar of defence so high that many who have indeed done or said the things of which they are accused nevertheless win their libel cases. The result is that the media is intimidated away from exposing dodgy individuals.
This uniquely Draconian law has turned Britain, to its shame, into the global hub of ‘libel tourism’ where foreign wrongdoers sue in Britain in order to shut down media scrutiny of their behaviour.
But free speech itself can be abused. We do, after all, have other laws to restrict it where it is considered to cause real harm, such as incitement to racial hatred. And the fact is that Twitter and the net have become weapons of mass intimidation.
With single Tweets sometimes reaching thousands or even tens of thousands of people, someone’s character can be falsely assassinated and their reputation shredded across the world in a matter of seconds. It is the verbal equivalent of a dirty bomb.
Such fabrications, fantasies and falsehoods take on a life of their own and can come to represent a settled view which, despite being without any foundation whatever, starts to supplant reality altogether.
The internet has also unleashed something profoundly evil in the human psyche. On Twitter, Facebook and website chat-lines, insults, obscenities and death threats abound.
Sportsmen have deleted their Twitter accounts after being deluged by torrents of insults, threats and racist abuse.
More than one in ten teachers have been the victims of online abuse perpetrated by the parents of their pupils, ranging from hate-pages set up on social networking sites to malicious allegations of sexual abuse against children.
What is so astounding is the combination in such attacks of sheer unadulterated viciousness and total, out-to-lunch bonkersness. It’s a bit like an online version of being attacked at random in the street by a psychotic who hasn’t taken his medication.
One journalist told yesterday of how, after writing a column criticising cyclists for their behaviour, she received death threats, vile insults and obscene abuse. Cyclists! Who knew?
I myself have been the target of this kind of online witch-hunt for years, with lies and distortions making me out to be some kind of ultra-extremist fruitcake on the fringes of society itself — an impression spread by people repeating such drivel on the internet, even though they may boast they have not have read a word of what I have actually written.
Abuse of the kind that has been hurled at me displays pathological hatred and aggression with epithets such as ‘Kill yourself you ****’, ‘Throw her in the Thames’, and ‘Go and suck a tail pipe, get cancer, GET RAN OVER BY A TRAIN. I hope your ******* house burns down’.
What is even more awful is that people who have experienced serious illness or personal tragedy, or exhibit some disability or other vulnerability, attract some of the most vicious abuse. The internet has provided rocket-fuel for sadism.
Because it gives everyone a virtual soapbox, it has provided every crank, inadequate and bully with the means to turn into instant celebrities. And the scope for anonymity means people can say whatever they like with impunity.
Not only Twitter but other social media and internet sites have unleashed cyber-bullying. As teachers have warned, sites such as Facebook encourage teenage girls to post nasty comments about each other because these domains desensitise girls to the effects on others of what they might say or do.
The online encyclopaedia Wikipedia — the sixth most visited website in the world — also plays host to disinformation. The facility for anyone to alter its entries makes it a uniquely up-to-date information source — but also leaves it wide open to abuse.
Johann Hari, the former journalist for the Independent, notoriously inserted damaging material into the Wikipedia entries of his enemies.
Other entries are routinely altered by public relations companies, major corporations and other organisations to exclude references to allegedly corrupt practices or industrial disasters.
RLM Finsbury is a PR company representing Alisher Usmanov, the largest shareholder in the Russian telecoms firm Megafon. When this was about to float on the London Stock Exchange, Finsbury was discovered to have been secretly excising from Mr Usmanov’s Wikipedia entry embarrassing details about an overturned criminal conviction, as well as a row in which he was involved over freedom of speech.
The PR company quickly apologised for making these changes, admitting they were ‘not done in the proper manner, nor was this approach authorised by Mr Usmanov’. But such unrestricted online access to Wikipedia means that an ostensibly authoritative source of information just cannot be trusted.
In short, the internet, which has opened up access to information for so many, has a disturbing downside as a result of its anarchic quality.
Unlike the Press, which has to answer both to the self-regulating Press Complaints Commission or commercial pressure from readers who may stop buying a paper or advertisers who may withdraw their accounts from it, net users are not accountable for their actions.
As a result, there has been virtually no comeback for the bullies and sadists who abuse the internet — until now.
Experts have estimated that the libel actions being considered by Lord McAlpine could involve the largest number of defendants in British legal history.
His lawyers are reported to have already discovered around 1,000 original offending Tweets and a further 9,000 re-Tweets.
Until now, people who use Twitter or other social media have apparently laboured under the delusion that they are just chatting to each other. The fact is, however, that they are publishing material for which, just like any journalist, they are answerable to the laws of libel, contempt of court or other sanctions.
Now a significant number of them are about to learn this in what may be a very painful lesson indeed.
Twitter and other social media can be a boon. Under repressive regimes, they can help create a resistance against tyranny. They can also provide a salutary corrective to misreporting and worse by the mainstream media.
But without any kind of inbuilt corrective, they can turn into a tyranny of their own. Which is why Lord McAlpine may not just be rescuing his own reputation, but doing the whole of society a very big favour indeed.