There’ve been a couple of stories over the past two days about defamatory tweets. Lord McAlpine is (understandably) considering taking legal action. Now it transpires that retweeting a defamatory tweet might be libellous (h/t to Jimisha Lakhani for this story.)
It’s an interesting thing; this — and we’re all at risk one way or another.
Many years ago I jokingly link-blogged someone’s wonderfully self-aggrandising (and really quite un-self-consciously funny) online biog, adding the tags “doogiehowser” and “fraud” by way of commentary.
About six months later, I received a phone call (I was in the middle of deep frying felafel for a dinner party). The chap had come across my link during a back link search, and was asking me — very politely — whether I’d remove it. What he said was something like “please would you remove that link?” What I heard was “Mat, you idiot, there goes your house.” I’d jokingly — but very publicly — accused a complete stranger of fraud.
If you haven’t already, you should read George Monbiot’s “Lord McAlpine – An Abject Apology”. I’m not a huge Monbiot fan; but I do rather feel for him here (not half as much as I feel for Lord McAlpine, I hasten to add.) What Monbiot says is telling:
I felt a powerful compulsion to do what I have done throughout my career: to help the voiceless be heard. But in this case I did so without any of the care I usually take when assessing and reporting an issue. I allowed myself to be carried away by a sense of moral outrage. As a result, far from addressing an awful injustice, I contributed to one.
Note those phrases: “powerful compulsion”, “carried away”.
I think that we’re all at risk of behaving like George, and for two main reasons. For one thing, those of us who’ve been on the web for a while (and who can remember well-meaning attempts to create shared rules of ‘netiquette’) will recall that it’s shamefully easy to treat someone whose only existence in your subjective reality is as a string of bytes here and there on the web as though they’re not real people. My experience of libellous link-blogging has demonstrated to me how easy it is to make that mistake (but it’s a mistake that I’ve still made a number of times.)
But the other, more frightening reason is that we’re all capable of getting caught up in the fun of a witch hunt. We can all become part of a baying mob.
The scary thing is that it’s not even really a conscious decision; instead it’s the flip side of all those unconscious social drives that we’re trying to co-opt when we practice social media marketing.