The dangers of saying whatever you want on Twitter

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Twitter has become hugely popular but is it now in danger of becoming a victim of its own success? Chris Bond reports.

FOR many people, Twitter has become as much a part of their daily routine as brushing their teeth.

Since its launch in 2006, the micro-blogging site has exploded into a global phenomenon harnessing the internet’s powers of mass communication to break major news stories, bring down politicians and even spark revolution.

In the UK alone Twitter has around 10m users, myself included. I joined the site just over 12 months ago and use it to send online links about stories 
like this, as well as to keep up to date with what’s going on in the world, whether it’s here in Yorkshire, or on the other side of the world. For instance, it was through Twitter at the weekend that I found out Sir Patrick Moore had passed away.

People use social networking sites like Twitter for all kinds of reasons. Even our country’s senior bishops, including the Archbishop of York Dr John Sentamu, are using it to tweet their Christmas Day sermons for the first time in a bid to share their festive message with a new digital audience.

But as Twitter’s popularity has soared so have the number of controversies. Several footballers have found themselves in hot water for comments they’ve made online, including Barnsley’s Egyptian striker Mido, who became involved with a protest against Israel at Westminster. The South Yorkshire club have reportedly taken disciplinary action against the player after an offensive tweet, which was subsequently deleted, was posted on his Twitter account.

But spreading false and damaging accusations on Twitter can have serious repercussions as the Lord McAlpine affair has shown. The peer was wrongly named as a paedophile online, following a botched Newsnight investigation into child abuse at a North Wales care home. He has now reached six-figure settlements with both the BBC and ITV.

He also vowed to pursue Twitter users who wrongly named him, asking those who linked him to child abuse allegations to apologise formally and pay a “sensible and modest amount” which he plans to donate to BBC Children in Need.

Chris Allen, managing partner at Blacks solicitors based in Leeds, believes the Lord McAlpine case will be a deterrent. “It’s a clear cut case of defamation and what 
Lord McAlpine has done is put down a marker that may act as a deterrent in the future and if people do stop and think for a second before they write something, then that’s good. Twitter is a great marketing tool and it’s a great way of meeting new people, but it’s bad when it’s full of nonsense or vitriol.”

He points out that retweeting someone else’s defamatory comment can be just as damaging. “If a newspaper prints something defamatory and then another paper prints the same thing the next day it’s still defamatory. It’s the same with Twitter, retweeting something might not have the same intent but you still have the question, ‘is it defamatory?’ And if the answer is ‘yes’ then you’ve got a problem,” he says.

“In the last couple of years there’s been a massive spike in the number of people using sites like Twitter without any sort of training. In the past there was a period of time between writing a story and it getting published in a newspaper the next day, but now that’s come down to a split second.”

The common view seems to be that the internet, and sites like Twitter, are almost impossible to police, but Allen disagrees. “I don’t think it is impossible and I think the McAlpine case shows that everything on Twitter is traceable.” And he doesn’t believe we need new laws regulating social networking sites. “We already have the 2003 Communications Act which was created around email and now social media has taken off, and some people are asking whether we need a new act. But if we were to have one it probably wouldn’t be much different from what we have now and I think the Government would be very nervous about bringing in legislation that impacts on freedom of speech,” he says.

“If you go back to the early days of email a similar thing happened with inappropriate video clips and messages being distributed. Employers brought in IT policies to deal with it and now more employers are doing the same thing with social media.”

Allen is a big fan of Twitter, but says if in doubt then don’t tweet. “It’s not the Wild West. If you write something that is defamatory, racially motivated, or homophobic, then you can expect to be prosecuted or pursued.”