Thursday, November 22, 2012

Twitter, Libel, and how to think of new media as old media

Various legal quakes are hitting Twitter as of late; there has of been the use of section 127 for malicious communications, but the mainstay seems to be forming around libel. To take a hypothetical case imagine a rumour spreading about the actions or character of a person given the current Saville situation let's say that they're a paedophile. Some publication alludes to "a person in power" as being one and Twitter becomes abuzz with people asking who they could mean.

Twitter A: Does anyone know who [publication] is talking about?
Twitter B: Yeah it's [person]!

Then everyone starts retweeting and spreading [person]'s name about with little thought to consequence. But what if this wasn't Twitter. Consider that Twitter B was a person wearing a Sandwich Board stating "[Person] is the paedophile that [publication] was talking about!" pretty easy to see that would be libel. The retweets - more people making their own sandwich boards. Still libel. People grabbing their friends and pointing out the sandwich boards to them - distribution of libel.

Where things go wrong is that so many people don't think of Facebook or Twitter as publications, but they are and that includes blogs too hence my purely hypothetical example. Unlike section 127 etc. however intent plays little to no part in libel; the question asked is - can the publisher stating this prove this information to be true and if not does it malign the person about whom it is made?

As it stands this makes sense, people shouldn't be able to harm the reputation of others simply because of the way they do it, but the way it is laid out means that strictly speaking any publication can't even mention what is going on because doing so could in and of itself be considered libel. That is even stating that "Twitter is abuzz about [publications] remarks" may be deemed to be drawing people's attention to Twitter and thus be considered a distribution of libel.

It is this latter point that needs to be addressed by a change in law; repeating libel via retweet should remain potential libel, but pointing out what another publication is stating using a neutral tone has to be accepted as being "news" and thus protected.

In other words a difference has to be held between "[Person] is a paedophile" and [Publication] is claiming the identity of the paedophile" in that the latter isn't maligning [person] directly it's up to the person reading that remark to dig out the information for themselves something they might well stumble upon by themselves anyway.
It's a tricky balance, but at the moment within new media it's far too heavily weighted against the publishers.


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