Over the course of the year we have reported on the negative and potentially dangerous consequences of Internet hate campaigns that see social networking users jump onto online bandwagons to accuse and spread unverified, unproven and speculative rumours in what often turn out to essentially nothing more than witch-hunts.
This includes rumours in 2010 where hundreds of thousands of Facebook users spread rumours across the social networking site wrongly identifying a man as a sexual predator.
We reported in our blog posts that social networkers seem much more willing to spread allegations without first checking their validity. Perhaps because the apparent shroud of anonymity the Internet seems to provide lowers the inhibitions of online gossipers who somehow think that they are not as responsible for their actions online as they are in the real world.
However the tides may be slowly turning – at least in the UK – where the recent paedophile scandals which have been dominating the headlines over the last few months have pushed this pressing issue straight into the limelight.
And it’s Twitter users that have been causing the problems as former politician Lord McAlpine, a once high profile Conservative MP, has had his own “trial by Twitter” as thousands of users spread false rumours that the politician was the latest public figure to be outed as guilty of paedophila.
And as the allegations turn out to be false some Twitter users have had to make very public and very embarrassing U-turns with full apologies as they recognize that their comments and implications were unsubstantiated.
But are these U-turns and apologies too little too late? Lord McAlpine has publicly stated that he will chase the not-so-proud owners of many of the ill-advised tweets made against him in what could be a potentially massive libel suit against many, many Twitter users.
In the firing line, it appears, is high profile tweeter Sally Bercow who made a rather foolish tweet noting how Lord McAlpine seemed to be trending a few weeks ago on the same night a NewsNight investigation was aired on television about the sex scandals.
The long lasting issue here will be the ever delicate balance between freedom of speech and defamation. We all have the right to express ourselves but when that expression comes at the expense of somebody else then that is where problems arise.
And whilst we’re strong advocates for freedom of speech, we have to realise that we don’t always live in a civilised society and occasionally we have to put limits on such liberties. Defamation and potentially dangerous witchhunts are some such limits.
Do you think social media users should become more responsible for comments they make online? Or perhaps you think this is censorship? Do you think Lord McAlpine should try and sue those who helped circulate rumours against him? If this whole debacle teaches people to be more careful with what stories they spread online, isn’t that a good thing?
What we should all take from this is, as we’ve said many times before, just because you’re sitting behind a keyboard it does not mean that you cannot be held responsible for what you do or that your actions do not have real world consequences. It’s worth noting that it is not just libellous or defamatory comments that can get you into trouble, as this Facecrooks article highlights, inflammatory and overly offensive comments are likely to get you arrested in the UK as well with a dramatic rise in related arrests over the last two years.
And remember if Lord McAlpine does have some success chasing his accusers, it could mean making ill-advised comments on the Internet without first verifying your sources is more likely than ever going to see you facing a possible libel suit.
P.S. And if you think you can only be held accountable for public social media comments then think again, as another recent story, this time from the United States, shows how you can still be held accountable for messages sent from what many people believe to be anonymous web based email accounts like Gmail. Think again.