“Was last week a watershed week in terms of unsubstantiated online gossip?” Andrew Neil asked Richard Bacon on the BBC current affairs programme ‘This Week’ last week.
On Twitter, as @richardpbacon, Bacon describes himself as a ‘minor celebrity’ (and we all know how much I admire celebrity) but, following his brave battle against internet trolls, Bacon needs to be taken seriously on this issue.
“Yes” said Bacon. “From people with only a small number of followers, (Lord McAlpine) is asking for an apology and a token £5 (to Children in Need) and … it has turned it into a watershed moment. People’s attitudes about tweeting and, more crucially, re-tweeting libellous comments will change as a result of this.”
“In the Twittersphere, and social media in general, will we see a pulling back from the nastiness?” asked Neil.
“I hope so” replied Bacon “One of the solutions would be if providers of social media compelled users to see their real photo and their real name, a lot of that nastiness would dissipate because people are emboldened by anonymity.”
AC Grayling made this point in 2007: “Let us get rid of anonymity of posts on (The Guardian blog) and agree or disagree, support or lock horns vigorously, in the open – with common courtesy as the only system of governance we need.”
With my advertising and marketing hat on, I know that, from a commercial point of view, anonymous users are of no value whatsoever to Twitter. Free-to-use sites can only survive with advertising revenue. And advertisers need to know precisely who they are promoting to. ‘If its free, you are the product’ goes the mantra. If Twitter doesn’t know who you are, and at least one of your contact details, how can they sell you to anyone else?
Yes, Twitter can be harmless fun. Who would want to gag @DrSamuelJohnson or Pippa Middleton’s bottom? But to what extent is ‘harmless fun’ outweighed by the ‘nastiness’ of Twitter to which Richard Bacon referred?
Lord McAlpine lawyers reckon they can identify no less than 10,000 Twitter users (1,000 original tweets and 9,000 retweets) who made ‘untrue pervert accusations‘ against him.
Now 10,000 is a heck of a lot of people to have been provoked into a physical act, even as simple as a retweet, to malign an innocent person. Talk about the Wisdom of Crowds (not).
But were these 10,000 tweeters nasty? They were wrong and they were malicious, but were they nasty? And, if deliberately plotted, how much nastiness could Twitter provoke from its gullible users?
On the same TV programme, the former Cabinet Minister Michael Portillo compared human behaviour on Twitter to road rage: “You see it even with people in a car (where) people make gestures and yell obscenities at people. Somehow that little bubble of a car protects them from normal human behaviour.”
What does it take to turn people from normal to abnormal behaviour, from nastiness to evil?
After all, in road rage, stepping out of the bubble of a car can lead to physical assault and even murder – as a quick online search shows has happened in countries as far apart as Abu Dhabi, America, New Zealand and India. And, in the UK, the 1996 road rage murderer Tracie Andrews has been in the news again this week.
Is there an online equivalent of this behaviour?
Could we see, one day, the anonymity of Twitter being cold-heartedly exploited in a planned and calculated way by an evil person? Could Twitter be used to incite physical violence and murder?
I think it could. I believe there is a scenario where, say, religious or political zealots could plan and develop Twitter campaigns to provoke an instant, mass-market, evil response.
So, we need to be careful. And, as non-politicians, we should stop it happening before rather than after it happens.
In the McAlpine case, not only should Twitter be forced to publish the identities of its gullible users but made jointly liable with a fine, not of a fiver, but at least £5Million for enabling 10,000 human beings to falsely accuse an innocent man of being a paedophile.
That should do it.