Twitter Law

Some years ago I accompanied a friend to a radio station, where he was going to get interviewed about a show. Just before the interview, we were asked by one of the producers if we wanted coffee, and I replied “Yes, can I have a black coffee please?” She looked at me with utter contempt, and in that condescending tone used by those who have attained a higher level of political correctness, she admonished me saying “I don’t think you’re supposed to call it black coffee”. I was literally left speechless, and to my shame, did not reply. Since then I have replayed the conversation in my head, but this time I make a witty retort. This incident introduced me to one important demographic in the UK society, the pious busybody. You know the type, they spend their life tutting at real and imagined slights, always looking down on the rest of us for our lack of moral rectitude in their chosen field of outrage. These people disproportionately inhabit media circles, council seats, middle management, and low-level law enforcement.

It is my theory that the pious busybodies have set their sights on Twitter, which explains the wave of social media arrests that we are witnessing in recent months.

Ever since the infamous Twitter joke trial, many legal commentators have been looking at the developments taking place in the borderlands between social media and the real world with worry, particularly in the UK. For some strange reason, police in the UK have been incredibly keen on arresting people for stuff they have posted online. This is both an issue of freedom of speech, and of resources. There have always been opinionated stupid people in the world, and hopefully there will always be. To prosecute every person who makes a stupid comment online is not only a clear affront to freedom of expression, but it is also an unsustainable crime enforcement model. Where do you draw the line?

Moreover, arresting people for Twitter opinions is disproportionate to the offence. I strongly believe that jail should be the exception and not the rule, and with few exceptions it should not be the default response by law enforcement agencies.

What about civil actions? By now everyone in the UK is familiar with the Lord McAlpine affair, who was falsely implicated by thousands of people on Twitter of being involved in child abuse. At some point there was a mob mentality on Twitter where thousands of people assumed guilt, and started tweeting about it. Many of the high profile personalities involved have issued apologies, such as George Monbiot. Still, Lord McAlpine has vowed to sue at least 20 of these celebrity Twitter users for their posts.

I for one hope that he does go ahead, because I suspect that while some of the tweets were defamatory, some were not. Take this one from Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons:

“Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*”.

I’m no expert in libel law, but really? There is a hint of something there, but only a hint, not really the stuff of libel. It would be interesting to get a court looking at the law of libel as it applies to social media. I hope that some of the people being sued stand their ground, I suspect that some of them might actually win their cases.

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