I’ve written on the topic of the law and social media before, specifically how to avoid being arrested for the things you post, anyone who is interested can see my previous article here.Apparently though people aren’t following my advice to use common sense before they click post, that’s the conclusion I’ve reached having just finished reading the judgement of Mr Justice Tugendhal of the High Court in the case of The Lord McAlpine of West Green v Sally Bercow. Anyone interested in reading that for themselves can find the judgement here.
On a side note as a Twitter novice I’ve learnt a lot from this case about the nuances of the site. The background to this case is that after a BBC Newsnight report implicating “a leading Conservative from the time” in allegations of Child Abuse at a children’s care home. Lord McAlpine was then named on social media sites as being the leading Conservative being referred to, I must stress that was completely incorrect but that’s the nature of rumours, they do implicate the wrong people.
What Sally Bercow did was to send a Tweet which read “Why is Lord McAlpine trending?” which is perfectly innocent question until you add in the “*innocent face*” emoticon that Mrs Bercow did. That was the deciding factor for the judge in this case, and anyone else with a modicum of common sense, that meant the tweet changed from an ‘innocent factual question (as Mrs Bercow alleged) into meaning that Lord McAlpine was guilty of sexually abusing boys.
Now there are two issues that immediately jump out at me in this case, first is Mrs Bercow’s failure to engage her brain when she is using social media and second is the risk that social media sites like Twitter can be used to implicate innocent people in horrendous crimes. The first issue probably comes as no surprise to anyone who is remotely familiar with Mrs Bercow *cough* Celebrity Big Brother *cough*. The second is a serious issue that I’ve touched upon in my pervious articles. People need to consider what they are actually publishing on social media sites. Most people are probably guilty of telling a tasteless joke to a few friends, I certainly am. But people fall into the trap of thinking that sites like Twitter are analogous to this situation when they very clearly are not, Mrs Bercow’s followers at the time of her Tweet numbered around 56,000. There is a huge difference between talking to 4 or 5 friends and (to use a metaphor I’ve used before) stepping up to the microphone in a busy theatre that is Twitter and shouting as loud as you can.
The risk of damaging rumours being created goes up significantly in the Social Media forum and Lord McAlpine is fortunate he has the money to pursue actions like this against people who made these types of posts. In fact the scales have probably tipped in terms of publicity of him being innocent (thanks to stories like this one) rather than implicating him. What I am saying here may seem pretty obvious, or at least it does to me, especially if you are in the public eye under greater scrutiny than ordinary people. But it can’t be because people keep doing these things and I keep writing about them.
I’ll sign off by saying I’ll see you next time someone does something majorly stupid, so this is going to be a daily feature *innocent face*.
By Jack Troup