For and against the evils of Twitter

John Rentoul

portillo 300x225 For and against the evils of TwitterMichael Portillo was mostly interested in “internet filth” in the discussion about Twitter on BBC Radio 4’s Moral Maze last night. (He was in black tie, presumably for dinner afterwards rather than as a statement about BBC standards.)

He did not believe my claim that Twitter is a medium through which untrue stories are rebutted more quickly than ever, and that the problem of the naming of the mis-identified Conservative peer arose not because of Twitter but because it originated from a credible mainstream media source, the BBC’s Newsnight. (My bit starts at about 10′40″ in.)

I pointed out that credibility and reputation are just as important on Twitter as anywhere else, even if it might take people and legal systems a while to adjust. For example, the hoax stories about the deaths of famous people that have sometimes been retweeted in haste are easily checkable. If they originate from an account that has only four followers, we can assume that they are probably untrue.

Portillo assumed that I was making a simple “democratic truth” argument, that the more followers someone has on Twitter, the more credible they are.

Fortunately, David Allen Green was on after me, and had the best line, which was that the arguments against Twitter, and the internet generally, made by Portillo and Giles Fraser, who was also on the panel, were familiar. “You have got to be able to trust people with this new right to be able to communicate with the world, just as, 100 years ago, you had to trust them to be able to vote or before that to be able to read Scripture.”

Fraser was worried about “the crowding, the bullying” of Twitter, “the way in which it can amplify some of the best things as well as some of the worst things about who we are”.

Green responded: “That was the same with giving people the vote.”

Update: I also wrote about this for The Independent on Sunday.

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  • creggancowboy

    R v Blackwell, R v Donnellan, the Rosie Dodd case.

  • zandeman

    Ah, I see. You take the view that the existence of miscarriages of justice proves that all rape convictions are unsound. You really are as simple-minded as your avatar suggests.

  • creggancowboy

    Bullets cannot kill an idea Mr McCready (V for Vendetta).

  • badgerman

    The same standards should apply to social media as to any other situation. I agree with zandeman that people should not be prosecuted for expressing an opinion, however vile, and I think we have gone to far in protecting people’s right not to be offended. But an opinion is one thing; an accusation is something entirely different. If someone libels another person on the internet, the victim should have the right to the same protection they would if it happened in a newspaper. Anonymity is an illusion; if something is
    serious enough to warrant it, most posters on the mainstream social media sites
    could be tracked down.

  • badgerman

    And may I just add, Twitter is far to banal to be evil, but that doesn’t make it a good idea. I don’t know who put the Twit in Twitter, but I’m sure it was no accident.

  • John Rentoul

    I know Newsnight did not name the Tory peer, but it had identified an individual for its own purposes. The name leaked on to Twitter because there were people who knew who was the subject of Newsnight’s investigation.

  • Pacificweather

    It does seem bizarre that you support anonymity for people who may be guilty whilst rejecting it for those who may be innocent. Publicity is not going to alter the outcome except for the innocent. Surely, anonymity for all is most likely to provide a just outcome. Only press prurience would wish for any other state of affairs.

  • Pacificweather

    Almost nobody reads Twitter in the way that almost nobody read The News of the World. Media twaddle.

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