McAlpine case heralds new era for Twitter

British Twitter users could be facing a watershed moment for the social network. Lord McAlpine’s legal advisors are pursuing 20 tweeters for incorrect and defamatory tweets connecting the former Tory politician with a child sex abuse investigation.

Among those pursued for damages are comedian Alan Davies, Sally Bercow, the wife of the House of Commons Speaker, and the Guardian columnist George Monbiot. The legal firm RMPI had targeted "high-profile" tweeters with more than 500 Twitter followers.

The case, and any damages that ensue, is likely to be a wake-up call for Twitter users who still treat the network as a conduit for ill-informed and prejudicial comments, or for spreading unsubstantiated rumours.

The BBC and ITV are settling with McAlpine for the defamatory allegations. The BBC paid £185,000 in damages for their Newnight report. ITV paid £125,000 for an incident on This Morning when Phillip Schofield confronted the Prime Minister with a list of names he had taken from the internet.

Both Bercow and Monbiot had been quick to voice their regrets when the truth emerged. Bercow tweeted: "Final on McAlpine: am VERY sorry for inadvertently fanning flames. But I tweet as me, forgetting that to some of u I am Mrs bloody Speaker." She then deleted her Twitter account. Monbiot apologised on his blog for mentioning McAlpine.

McAlpine’s lawyers have said that tweeters with fewer than 500 followers who spread the allegations should contribute a "sensible and modest amount" to charity. "The fixed donation amount is yet to be assessed," they said. "However, this will be to Lord McAlpine's charity of choice, BBC Children In Need, and will be in addition to an administration fee."

Scotland Yard were still considering whether criminal prosecutions could be brought over defamatory Twitter messages. What seems certain though is that, post-McAlpine, the days of Twitter as an unmediated forum for vicious gossip is well and truly over.

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