If there is one good thing to come out of the Newsnight fiasco, which resulted in the irresponsible and inaccurate smearing of Lord McAlpine on social networks, it’s the challenge to the long-held assumption that Tweeting or blogging defamatory or libellous material cannot be policed, and that those who propagate and repeat such mis-information cannot be held to account. As Lord McAlpine’s lawyers prepare their legal case against the BBC and those considered to have been responsible for incorrectly identifying him on social networks, it may cause quite a few people to reflect on their behaviour. This is the moment when it can be clearly shown and understood that people cannot be libelled or harassed with impunity just because the defamation is published online and by individuals rather than on paper or by large organisations. The idea that the world wide web is the Wild West and immune from the law is – at long last – being seriously challenged.
What many people seem to forget is that having a social media account, e.g. on Facebook or Twitter brings with it a certain responsibility. After all, these social networks bring incredible reach and potential access to an audience of billions. Other than age restrictions imposed by some vendors, you don’t need any special skills, no training, no licence and you don’t have to demonstrate any competence before you can establish an account and begin pumping out your message to the world. This is all well and good, and re-inforces the democratisation of voice and freedom of speech. But this doesn’t mean you can say (write) anything you want. Yes, there will always be trolls, but that doesn’t mean we have to accept them or to not pursue them through the courts if they harass, incite hatred or libel people. A few short sharp shocks, as is promised in the pending legal action brought by Lord McAlpine, will perhaps remind social media users that they have moral and legal obligations and cannot sit behind a computer screen detached and immune from the consequences of their actions.