Twitter on trial

Features Mark Oakley Jan 7, 2013

Mark Oakley ponders the impact of recent legal battles on the world’s biggest micro-blogging service

It’s difficult to remember a time before Twitter. Though the micro-blogging service is still relatively young, the Internet and our daily lives are awash with words like ‘tweet’, ‘tweeters’ and ‘trending’. The service has become a key marketing tool for creative types to promote their wares to target audiences, television shows are now more interactive than ever thanks to hashtags, while magazines and newspapers regularly use Twitter to spread debate and find stories. Even our politicians have adopted the platform, with Barack Obama’s simple victory acceptance tweet ‘ “four more years” - becoming the most retweeted ever.

As with most things, the more popular it becomes the more it is scrutinised. One misstep by a celebrity moaning to the world and they’re chastised in the press for not having the good grace to accept all that celebrity brings, the good and the bad. Then you have the likes of footballer Joey Barton, a regular target of Twitter abuse for his somewhat forthright views.

Yet there is a side of Twitter everyone seems to have ignored until recently. Users have typically viewed the service as a extension of a private telephone call to a friend; a chat or a comment which only their friends and colleagues would understand. There are all manner of tweets sent every day, hurling abuse at others and laying out utterly slanderous comments. While you could possibly get away with saying such things down the pub, by passing it off as harmless banter, the whole world is in on the joke on Twitter - and now the part of the world that makes its living enforcing libel law is fighting back.

Lies, damned lies

The most recent high-profile case to beset Twitter concerns Lord McAlpine, who - follwing a BBC Newsnight programme, which alleged that a senior Conservative politician was part of systematic, organised child abuse in North Wales - was widely named as a paedophile on social media. These accusations were later proven to be false, following an admission of mistaken identity by the main source of the report.

This case is so interesting because, as well as seeking damages for libel from the BBC (which have since been paid up) Lord McAlpine’s legal team is also looking for legal settlements from everyone on Twitter who wrongly accused him of child abuse. This includes various well-known Tweeters users and many ordinary members of the public - including thousands who retweeted accusatory statements. In total, over 10,000 Twitter users have been identified by his lawyers in what could well turn out to be the largest number of defendants in British legal history. Now, suddenly, Twitter doesn’t quite seem like the messaging playground it once was.

Can he do this?

Anyone who is in receipt of a legal letter demanding an apology and a settlement figure might be asking if this is really a justifiable reaction to messages on the free speech platform that is the world wide web. As far as the legal experts are concerned, absolutely.

Leon Deakin, Associate at national law firm Thomas Eggar LLP, says: “Twitter’s Terms of Service are pretty clear on the responsibility for what users write and how it may be passed on beyond their immediate network, clearly stating: “You understand that your Content may be syndicated, broadcast, distributed, or published by our partners and if you do not have the right to submit Content for such use, it may subject you to liability.”

Ignorance is no excuse, either. “It appears as though many users either have not read these terms or have acted without necessarily thinking through the consequences of their actions. I have no doubt that the message to think twice before you tweet will now be heeded by many more users than before. If not, they will have no-one to blame but themselves.”

The worry for Twitter is that depending on how widespread and successful legal action such as this is (and it’s worth bearing in mind that other reports have claimed that Lord McAlpine has offered Twitter users something of a get-out by issuing him with an apology and donating £5 to charity), Joe Public could be left wondering whether it’s really worth tweeting, or even retweeting, any slightly offensive but quite funny (in their view) joke they heard about a celebrity just the other week. If they decide against it, there is a real chance that Twitter could witness a negative impact on its user numbers as people turn away. I’m not suggesting that Twitter should be used to send offensive messages about, or to, anyone (it’s one of the web’s rather nastier sides, frankly) but the reality is that a search for various names on the service will come up with all manner of messages which can be called into question - and it’s worth remembering that Twitter does have past experience of users finding themselves in the dock.

Just a joke

In January 2010, Paul Chambers famously joked on Twitter that he was going to blow up Robin Hood airport in South Yorkshire if it didn’t open again soon (the airport was under heavy snow leading to its closure at the time). Some people clearly didn’t get the humour and Chambers was arrested by anti-terror police, subsequently lost his job and went through the courts several times over to clear his name.

With some high-profile help in the form of the likes of comedian Al Murray and Stephen Fry, the case was eventually dropped, some two years later, as the tweet was judged to have not been menacing. Many questioned why this wasn’t the view in the first place, why taxpayers’ money had been wasted on such a seemingly silly case, and where this left the wider Twitter landscape in general. Twitter abuse hurled at Olympian Tom Daley and footballer Fabrice Muamba have also hit the headlines in recent months, but the need to be careful about what you tweet isn’t just a British thing.

Earlier this year, an Indian man felt the full force of the law when he became famous as the first person in India to be arrested for a tweet. Ravi Srinivasan posted in October regarding one of the country’s politicians, Karti Chidambaram, stating that he had “amassed more wealth than Vadra”, referring to the son-in-law of a Party chief who was recently cleared of irregularities relating to property deals. Unfortunately for Srinivasan, Chidambaram didn’t go along with the joke, filing a police complaint and tweeting in response “Free speech is subject to reasonable restrictions. I have a right to seek constitutional/legal remedies over defamatory/scurrilous tweets.”

In another recent case, an Indian web user, this time a Facebook fan, was arrested for ‘Liking’ a post protesting against a political rally. Despite the fact that the student didn’t write the original post, just clicking ‘Like’ landed her in jail.

To tweet or not to tweet

All these cases call into question what you should tweet and retweet. The important thing to remember at all times while using a service like Twitter, and indeed any social media service, is that your comments will be seen by your followers and, unless you protect your account, the wider web community at large.

Lord McAlpine is unswerving in his wish to pursue legal action against the Twitter-verse, telling Channel 4 News: “I’m determined to make such an impact on the Twittering fraternity that they start thinking about what they are saying. Children are victims of other children. You can’t bully in the school yard any more, but you can bully through Twittering.”

It’s difficult to deny that the general concept underpinning Twitter actively encourages mindless statements and casual retweeting, with an all-too-simple means of communicating with others in just a few clicks. In doing so, I wonder if Twitter has unwittingly encouraged us all to air our views no matter how inaccurate they may be, and in some cases that is coming home to roost.

Of course, I don’t think freedom of speech should be attacked – nobody wants to live in fear of a police state and everyone should have the right to be offensive – but as the examples mentioned demonstrate, in particular the Lord McAlpine case, people might start to take far more care over what they write in 140 characters or less. Reputations can be irreversibly damaged by a few misplaced words.

In Twitter’s own terms of service, the following line reads: “What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly. You are what you Tweet!” Now, more than ever, that’s something people should bear in mind. mm