Why laws need to keep abreast with changes in media

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By Rangaswami /  29 Nov 2012 , 11:57

If you’re active on twitter, Facebook and other social media, you should keep a watchful eye on developments in the Lord Alistair McAlpine case.

An episode of BBC‘s ‘Newsnight’ program mentioned a senior Conservative politician as a pedophile and social media was abuzz with speculation on the individual, leading to Lord McAlpine being ‘identified’ as the pedophile. ‘Newsnight’ had never mentioned or alluded to him.

“The false rumor then spread on Twitter with, according to McAlpine’s lawyers, more than 1,000 libelous tweets and 9,000 retweets maliciously destroying the innocent man’s reputation. As a result, Lord McAlpine not only successfully sued the BBC for $185,000, but is also now considering suing prominent Twitter users such as Sally Bercow, the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, who tweeted to her almost 60,000 followers: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*”, reports CNN.

Getty Images

BBC, who never named Lord Alpine, was sued for $185,000 and Sally Bercow might end up being in the dock as well.

What did Bercow really say? “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.” Will that be enough to find her guilty of libel?

There are many views on this, and the CNN article makes one stop and think. “On Twitter’s Terms of Service, it tells new users: “What you say on Twitter may be viewed all around the world instantly. You are what you Tweet!” But this is wrong. If you have no followers, then what you say on Twitter has, essentially, no significance. So, you aren’t what you tweet. Instead, you are the size of your Twitter audience. Size matters. Thus, on Twitter, the reach of one’s megaphone should come with commensurate accountability (emphasis is the writer’s)”.

Which brings me to what is happening in India. Digvijaya Singh, Subramaniam Swamy and Arvind Kejriwal, to name just three, are used to making intemperate (and, measured by the Lord Alpine example, possibly libelous) statements on twitter.

Take this one from Subramaniam Swamy:

Subramanian Swamy ?@Swamy39
“Walmart Pitroda nexus and conduit to TDK on scan thanks to my American friends. Arkansas detour?”

Or this one from Arvind Kejriwal:

Arvind Kejriwal ?@ArvindKejriwal7
“Moily does not have guts to get Mukesh Ambani’s RIL audited by CAG. Moily is behaving like Mukesh Ambani’s agent.”

Or Digvijaya Singh’s innuendo in this tweet:

digvijaya singh ?@digvijaya_28
“Gen VK Singh and Vinod Rai were together in Birla Public School Pilani. Khemka and Kejriwal were together in IIT Kharagpur.What a coincidence.”

The slowness of the legal process in India makes suing for libel or defamation a long-drawn battle. Considering the speed at which updates travel on social media and the sizes of ‘audiences’ celebrities enjoy, the potential damage that off-the-cuff remarks such as the ones reproduced above is significant.

The danger is that while citizens of India have been able to understand and adopt new media very quickly, the law is stuck in a time-warp, unable to come to terms with the pace of the changes. Unless the courts and the police forces get their act together, we will see many Lord Alpines in India. Unlike Lord Alpine, they will, sadly, receive no apologies, no damages and no redressal.


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