Twitterers: Take responsibility for your reckless claims

Story highlights

  • Latest battle in Twitter war is being fought over Lord Alistair McAlpine case, says Andrew Keen
  • McAlpine considering suing prominent Twitter users who falsely alleged he was a pedophile
  • Keen: Those with many Twitter followers are as liable under libel law as media companies
  • Tory Lord is right to pursue new media aristocrats who sullied his reputation, Keen adds

Much has been written about the Twitterfication of the Gaza war. But there's a much more significant war taking place right now on Twitter. It's a war about freedom of speech in our new reputation economy; it's a war about what we legally should and shouldn't be able to say on Twitter.

The latest battle in this war is being fought over the Lord Alistair McAlpine case. You'll remember that it was McAlpine who was identified by Twitter users as being the senior Conservative politician whom the BBC Newsnight show said was a pedophile. The BBC, which had never revealed the alleged abuser's name, apologized nonetheless for McAlpine being wrongly implicated.

The false rumor then spread on Twitter with, according to McAlpine's lawyers, more than 1,000 libelous tweets and 9,000 retweets maliciously destroying the innocent man's reputation. As a result, Lord McAlpine not only successfully sued the BBC for $185,000, but is also now considering suing prominent Twitter users such as Sally Bercow, the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, who tweeted to her almost 60,000 followers: "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*."

What's significant about McAlpine's "Twibel" strategy is his focus on "high-profile Tweeters" with more than 500 followers like Bercow, comedian Alan Davies and Guardian journalist George Monbiot who tweeted to his 56,000 followers: "I looked up Lord McAlpine on t'internet. It says the strangest things."

Andrew Keen

While McAlpine's lawyers are encouraging many less well-endowed Twitter users who spread the pedophile rumor to donate a small sum to a children's charity, their focus appears to be on going after big names like Davies who, with his more than 442,000 followers, gives him an audience almost nine times the size of the main Twitter account of The Times of London newspaper.

Cyber-libertarians like Harvard University's Jonathan Zittrain argue that McAlpine's attack on Monbiot, Davies, Bercow and the other notable Tweeters is "unwise and uncalled for" because these individuals don't have the fact-checking resources of media companies. Perhaps. But what freedom-of-speech fundamentalists like Zittrain fail to recognize is that with all this new power should come new responsibility. And if one does, indeed, like Alan Davies, have nearly half a million Twitter followers, then one should indeed be as liable under the libel law as any other large media company.

On Twitter's Terms of Service, it tells new users: "What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly. You are what you Tweet!" But this is wrong. If you have no followers, then what you say on Twitter has, essentially, no significance. So, you aren't what you tweet. Instead, you are the size of your Twitter audience. Size matters. Thus, on Twitter, the reach of one's megaphone should come with commensurate accountability.

    Welcome to our 21st century reputation economy in which individual brands like George Monbiot or Alan Davies have as much power as 20th century newspapers or television networks.

    That's why McAlpine's legal strategy is so just. Sure, slap the small Twitter user, that digital peasant, with a symbolic fine for their thoughtless behavior. But the Tory Lord is right to aggressively go after the new media aristocrats, with their enormous audience, who so thoughtlessly sullied his reputation and whom he claims have broken the UK's libel laws.

    This should be a salutary lesson in our radical new media world. With media power comes media responsibility. And the larger one's audience, the more responsibility one has to get the facts straight.

    It's almost enough to encourage me to tweet: "Why are Sally Bercow, George Monbiot and Alan Davies trending? *innocent face*."

    But then, with my almost 21,000 Twitter followers, I might get sued myself. So I'll resist the temptation and, instead, maintain a dignified silence in this latest battle in the war about freedom of speech in our Twitter age.

    But it's a tricky balancing act. Early this year, Twitter announced a new policy giving the company the ability to "reactively withhold content from users in a specific country -- while keeping it available in the rest of the world." (Removing a tweet previously meant deleting it from the web entirely.)

    Critics said the move was a form of censorship, but Twitter promised tweets would be removed only upon request and only if they broke the law -- a system that Alexander Macgillivray, one of the policy's architects, defended as a way "to keep more tweets up in more places."

    The company refused to comply with all six government removal requests in the first half of 2012, but in October Twitter blocked access in Germany to the account of a neo-Nazi group that is banned by the German government, in addition to removing anti-Semitic tweets in France. "Never want to withhold content; good to have tools to do it narrowly & transparently," Macgillivray tweeted.

    The microblogging service may still be figuring out the kinks of this new policy, but at a time when multinational corporations are caving left and right to countries like China, Macgillivray's principled defense of free speech is vital. "No one wants a pen that's going to rat them out," he told the New York Times. "We all want pens that can be used to write anything and that will stand up for who we are."

    Macgillvray is right. Today's war about online freedom of speech is being fought both with and about the Twitter "pen." Let's hope that he Lord McAlpine case encourages powerful voices on Twitter to self-censor tweets that might libel others. But that doesn't mean I'm in favor of censoring Twitter. So, for example, let's also hope that Macgillivray and his team resists calls by the US Israel lobby to ban political groups like Hamas from Twitter. Yes, this is a balancing act. And the future of free expression in our digital age rests on getting it right.