Hayek (1979) said ignorance can be conquered
“not by the acquisition of more knowledge, but by the utilisation of knowledge which is and remains widely dispersed among individuals.”
Alfred Hermida used this quote in his 2010 essay entitled ‘Twittering the news – the emergence of ambient journalism’ to describe micro-blogging. In this post, I am going to talk more specifically about Twitter as a tool for breaking the news, but also as a weapon for misinformation.
Many stories have been broken first on Twitter. From the New York plane crash in 2009, to Michael Jackson’s and Whitney Houston’s deaths, to George Osborne’s first-class faux pas just last month. The birth of the internet means we no longer have to wait until the morning papers – or even the six o’clock news – to find out the latest news. And now, with Twitter, comes an even newer form of urgency, with news being delivered ‘straight to your door’ in tweet form.
As soon as someone knows something, it can be tweeted instantly in 140 characters, much shorter than your average news story. A tweeter can even forgo the law by not needing confirmation of facts before sending a tweet (as was the case with TMZ reporting Michael Jackson’s death). Mathew Ingram, in a blog on gigaom.com, said: “It’s tempting for mainstream media players to see news as something that only occurs when they report it.” News doesn’t get much speedier than on Twitter.
However, with this imperativeness to be *the first* to report news, i.e. winning the ‘we got the scoop!’ award, comes ignorance of the law. Yes, tweeters can generally ignore the law, as was the case with Ryan Giggs and his super-injunction over his affair with Imogen Thomas. Thousands of individual tweeters named him as the man in question, but when Giggs threatened to sue Twitter, the company simply replied saying that he would have to go after and sue each and every person who revealed his name. It seems that when it comes to gagging orders, Twitter is above the law and is a force to be reckoned with.
The current case with Lord McAlpine and Newsnight is slightly different, though. Among seemingly many other Twitter users, Sally Bercow – perhaps rather foolishly – joined in and sent this tweet. What she did may have seemed harmless at the time, but with the collection of other tweets under Lord McAlpine’s name and the seriousness of the allegations he was facing, it clearly wasn’t. Heads have already rolled due to the failure of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism and Newsnight, but it’s not over yet. It has been reported today that Lord McAlpine has threatened to sue Bercow and “any Twitter users who wrongly named him as a paedophile”.
It will be interesting to see how this plays out, as tweets relating to the event were sent and retweeted over 100,000 times. But maybe it is time that high-profile tweeters, who ought to know better, should be more careful and more professional with their Twitter profiles. But where does that leave everyone else? With over 500m Twitter accounts worldwide, it will prove tricky to manage what is posted from every account. And what would happen to freedom of speech? Only time will tell.