Twitter is a relatively new social media platform; most of us probably hadn’t even heard of it five years ago. Yet with all the furore in the media at the moment, it’s probably fair to say that most of the UK population will have become aware of what it is, and the risk you run if you repeat unfounded gossip.
Careless tweeting costs lives – in the sense that reputations are wrecked and there’s hurt and damage as a consequence. What sets Twitter apart from other social media sites is the fact that people can follow figures of public interest, celebrities and even organisations. This can be insightful and has valid political and commercial uses. Last year for example, Google and Twitter teamed up to create a ‘tweet-to-speak’ system to allow people caught up in the Egyptian unrest to tweet without the need for an internet connection. Services like that went a long way in creating a positive reputation for social media sites.
But recently we can’t turn on the TV or radio without being bombarded with news of another individual’s outburst which has led to fines, dismissal and even imprisonment. Just recently it has been Lord McAlpine that’s been caught up in the whirl wind of it. It’s hard not to feel sorry for him, after a Newsnight’s flawed investigation into a North Wales child abuse case wrongly accused him improper behaviour. To add insult to injury, the whole horrible thing went viral as he was named across the internet. The alleged victim later withdrew his claim, but this was only after more than a 1000 of the Twitterati had heard about the story and more than 9000 had re-tweeted it.
Senior MP’s expressed concerns about the effect that social networking sites such as Twitter and Facebook have when people want to spread “heinous” slurs. It’s clearly essential to ensure that reputations are not maliciously or carelessly damaged.
Lord McAlpine has shown considerable aplomb in his response. He has dealt with it firmly, asking all those who posted or re-tweeted the defamatory remarks to formally apologise and pay a “sensible and modest amount” to the Children in Need charity.
The McAlpine team has collected a list of people who have tweeted offending messages (even those who deleted them),including comedian Alan Davies who recently made a public apology after his tweet repeated the defamation to his 440,000 followers.
The fact that Mr Davies has now himself been publicly named probably doesn’t do his reputation too much good. Arguably, more of a twit than a tweet. Lord McAlpine’s lawyers are also going after hundreds of normal ‘tweeters’ as well as well-known journalists and politicians. It should be a serious wake-up call for everyone that uses social media.
More and more businesses are now looking to websites like Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn to advertise their services and to build relationships with customers, clients and associates. Reputations take years (literally) to build and just seconds to ruin, so as this case demonstrates, remembering what you are saying and to whom is advisable to not only avoid an extensive penalty but also to avoid a loss in business.
“Twitter is not just a closed coffee shop among friends. It goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and you must take responsibility for it. It is not a place where you can gossip and say things with impunity” said Andrew Reid, Lord McAlpine’s solicitor. He’s right. In future think twice before you hash tag.
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