On Twitter: @JamesFirth and @s_r_o_c (post feed)

Got a tip? tip@sroc.eu

Thursday, 15 November 2012

McAlpine Libel Madness

Amid reports "angry" Lord McAlpine is 'Set To Sue' Sally Bercow, ITV's This Morning and 'Long List' of Twitter users let's just take a step back.

Okay, it's very bad indeed to be falsely labelled a child abuser (yet not as bad as being abused, I'll get back to this later).

But in this particular case, with many days of headlines charting the subsequent implosion at the BBC, this false accusation was corrected in double quick time and in a rather spectacular fashion.

It's inconceivable that more than a handful of individuals would have seen the original allegation on Twitter yet missed the fallout.

So the overall reputational damage should be framed in this context. A few people for a short space of time heard through highly unreliable channels that the missing piece of the jigsaw laid out on BBC Newsnight was Lord McAlpine.  A claim that was quashed within a week.

Now I *know* being outed in this way was wrong and less than perfect, but let's not forget this all could have been avoided had Waterhouse or the police properly investigated and acquitted McAlpine when his name first surfaced back in the late 90's.

Secrecy just fuels suspicion, which bubbled underground on certain websites for years (and were published, apparently unchallenged, in at least one book back in the 1990's).   Had the judicial process run its course, and been seen to run its course, then the allegation would have been put to rest many years ago.

This kind of mob justice is a last resort from a mob who felt, however wrongly, that justice had not been done.  Not the kind of behaviour to be encouraged but far from malicious.

I wonder whether the acquittal, if/when it comes, for Freddie Starr or Dave Lee Travis will receive as much publicity as Lord McAlpine's very public correction.

Secondly on to Twitter.  Sally Bercow for instance asked why a name was trending, she didn't do more than make a slight innuendo "*innocent face*".  The BBC did not name names.  A classic jigsaw re-identification puzzle data privacy theorists talk about daily.

It will be an interesting libel case and for this reason alone I hope it goes to full trial so all these issues can be tested.

Also Twitter is a highly untrusted channel. Anyone reading twitter regularly knows to take each tweet at face value.  The law should not assume that word-of-mouth allegations carry as much weight as a reputable news organisation like the BBC, and the BBC gave nothing away that I'm aware of to make the allegations sweeping Twitter any more credible.

Still on Twitter, the practicalities of unmasking each user is a costly, multi-stage process for those not Tweeting under their real names.

First, McAlpine's team will need to subpoena Twitter to get what little data Twitter holds on its users. South Tyneside Council is reported to have spent £142,725 trying in vain to unmask one user in the infamous "Mr Monkey case".

This first round of action is likely to result in little more than an email address and a list of IP addresses from where the account was accessed.

A second round of action will then be needed against the Internet Service Providers to translate IP addresses into physical locations, and even then lawyers will have to prove that the tweeter is the ISP account holder.  There is no law to force account holders to identify who was using their internet at the time of the alleged tweets.

Maybe IP addresses will lead up blind alleys, such as internet cafes, privacy proxies or TOR relays.  In which case a third round of action will be required to find information from the email service provider.

Information from the email provider may itself be just an IP addresses, which will require more legal action to unmask, and so on.

Yes, what happened to Lord McAlpine is bad, but it's not as bad as children being abused, then having their stories ignored for a generation.  Two wrongs are definitely not justified, but without some level of public debate I fear it might never be possible to get to the bottom of the allegations.

Again I'm not justifying what happened, just trying to explain it in the wider context.

Tweeters were only relaying allegations from other online sources, allegations that have been online for many years.

And finally, if oppressive damages are awarded in this case despite all the above and despite the false allegation being the result of an honest mistake by a victim of abuse, the press will surely be very nervous about investigating cases where it appears the justice system has failed victims.

Leading to a problem: how can the press apply pressure on the police and justice system to correct what appears to be a historic injustice?

The false accusations were just the latest in a long catalogue of more serious errors. A care system which allowed the vulnerable to be abused. A system which allowed the rich and famous (e.g. Savile) to exist above suspicion.

A failure to take victims seriously at the time followed by a reliance on secrecy to hide unproven allegations rather than a full transparent investigation.

Libel action might help educate the masses to their collective responsibility not to pass-on tittle tattle.  But in the grand scheme of things I doubt it will achieve much, bar forcing the baying mob to hide their tracks when participating in social media.

A few weeks ago we asked how was Savile allowed to get away with his apparent crimes for so long.  I doubt many today are asking that question.



  1. Very reasonable observations on this morass of behaviour. Just one query occurs to me - about mechanics rather than substance. How does one trace a twitter source if a neighbour "borrows" my wifi net to send a tweet? Assuming we are both careless, or know each other's twitter connections, he could claim forgery (by me or A N Other); I could claim the same by him; and would I be liable as an effectively interim ISP providing him with internet access (and depending whether he had my permission to use my connection)? Even Twitter's records cannot reliably identify the source in such cases, can they?

    Even without a little hacking practice, there seem to be abundant opportunities for even further confusion of IDs. One must not assume that all deduced identities are correct, must one?

    1. Yes, just as you said. Many thanks for the comment.

  2. The security services of various nation states (as well as large corporations) use networks of sockpuppet social media accounts to inject misinformation.

    The account is farmed, semi-automatically posting drivel and gradually building up plausible looking random followers/friends. Once it looks like it has a healthy reputation it is then ready to be used as part of a misinformation campaign.

    I would not be surprised if there's a market in such accounts, using payment methods such as Bitcoin.

    You wouldn't start with a cold account - not enough noise to hide traceable links back to yourself.


Comments will be accepted so long as they're on-topic, do not include gratuitous language and do not include personal attacks or libellous assertions.

Comments are the views of the commentator and not necessarily the view of the blog owner.

Comments on newer posts are not normally pre-moderated and the blog owner cannot be held responsible for comments made by 3rd parties.

Requests for comment removal will be considered via the Contact section (above) or email to editorial@slightlyrightofcentre.com.