Beware of using social media as a soapbox – the internet police may come after you, writes Eilis O'Hanlon
When it comes to free speech, I've always been militantly in favour of throwing open debate to everybody who fancies pitching in, from fascists and Holocaust deniers to conspiracy theorists and terrorists. That's why when millionaire footballers were caught with their trousers down and found their names bandied about the internet in defiance of expensively acquired superinjunctions, my first response was to laugh, believing it much better to safeguard the free flow of information first and then deal with the consequences later, because, whatever they were, they had to be preferable to censorship.
I also believed that, whatever the downside, the rise of the internet had been a huge boon to the cause of freedom by opening up public conversation to those who were previously silenced or had no outlet for their views. It all seemed healthy and positive.
In the wake of that now infamous Newsnight report into alleged Tory party paedophiles, I'm not so sure that's a sustainable creed anymore. It's one thing letting people who've watched too many David Icke videos on YouTube loose on their keyboards to declare that George Bush is a blood-drinking lizard from another galaxy conspiring to establish a One World government with the Freemasons/Illuminati/Muppets (delete as appropriate). Nobody takes that stuff seriously, anyway.
But Lord McAlpine – who found himself widely and wrongly implicated on the internet for being part of a sex ring that preyed on young boys in a British care home, that broadcast went out – put it best. Paedophiles are objects of hatred. To be accused of being one is "terrifying ... It gets into your soul, it just makes you think there's something wrong with the world".
To make such a monumental, life-ruining accusation against somebody ought to require the highest possible standards of proof, but there is simply no need for any standards of proof, let alone the highest, online. You can just say it. Press the return key and it's out there, forever, for millions of people to potentially see. And the great unknown unknown about this still evolving story is that Lord McAlpine is not the only one. Many others, famous and unfamous, dead and alive, have recently been wrongly accused of child abuse online, with no way of fighting back. Until now.
Lord McAlpine agreed a £185,000 libel settlement with Newsnight, which had effectively encouraged viewers to use Google to find his name, but the most important part of the fight may still be to come as Lord McAlpine has pledged to pursue any and all Twitter users who posted his name online, including Guardian columnist George Mobiot and the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, Sally Bercow. For the first time, it seems that those who use social networking sites to spread libel will be held accountable.
He may be a 70-year-old millionaire toff with a "dicky heart", but in taking on the might of the internet Lord McAlpine is dramatically stepping up to the plate as the most unlikely champion of an old-fashioned decency which seems to have vanished in the age of instant messaging and social networking. It was plainly bonkers that the internet could casually spread malicious and unfounded gossip when repeating the same allegations would have led to the ruination of mainstream media outlets – but I suppose I just presumed until now that there was nothing to be done about it, because the internet was unpoliceable. I even rationalised my own apathy by saying that those who urged tighter regulation of the web were trying to deal with a 21st century problem using 20th century thinking and were doomed to ignominious failure. Lord McAlpine is challenging that lazy presumption and, right now, it looks like a good war to be waging.
I'm still not sure it will work. The internet is a wild and crazy place, and the treatment of Lord McAlpine is only the tip of an ugly iceberg. You can't hunt down all the loons. In future years, the Tory peer might even be regarded as the technological equivalent of King Canute, standing on the beach and demanding that the waves stop rolling in.
But my goodness, at least he's trying. And he does have one weapon on his side. His lawyers last week issued a public warning to the thousands who repeated allegations about him on Twitter: "We know who you are and we know exactly what you have done."
That's the other thing about the internet. It offers an instant soapbox but its promise of anonymity is false because it also leaves a trace of itself wherever you go.
The same weapons that are used against the innocently accused are now being turned back against the guilty accusers. Think of it as poetic justice.