How much damage did Twitter really do to Lord McAlpine?

16 Nov 2012

Being wrongly accused of child abuse is about as serious as false accusations come. In my personal view, Lord McAlpine deserves each and every one of the hundred and eighty five thousand pounds he’s reportedly been paid in compensation by the BBC (even if the ones ultimately footing the bill are us, the licence fee payers).

However, now his lawyers are seeking further recompense from another source: Twitter users. His legal team is apparently intent on shutting down any “trial by Twitter”, and plans to take action against “lots of people” who parroted the false allegations made about McAlpine.

Which invites the question: precisely how much damage did Twitter do to McAlpine’s reputation?

The evidence suggests that the reach and influence of Twitter users is far less damaging than a story on a national newspaper website

When English courts are deciding libel damages, the reach of the publication in which the libellous statement was made is taken into account. In my previous job as deputy editor of a national newspaper website, we were once sued for making an unsubstantiated allegation about a particularly litigious pop star. His lawyers cited the millions of unique visitors the newspaper quoted for its website, but using  website analytics tools we were able to show that the number of people who had clicked on the article carrying the libel was only in the tens of thousands. The (still substantial) damages awarded were capped as a result.

I’m not sure which or how many Twitter users Lord McAlpine’s lawyers are targeting, but the evidence suggests that the reach and influence of Twitter users is far less damaging than a story on a national newspaper website.

Twitter is, by its very nature, more noise than signal. Most people follow tens, if not hundreds, of Twitter users, but unless they’re sat glued to their screen all day, the chances of them reading any individual tweet is slim.

We can see some evidence of this in those appalling “My week on Twitter” services that many people are signed up to. Just picking the first three of these type of tweets that appear in a search: the first user has 742 followers but was retweeted just 11 times in a week; the second had 1,100 followers and was retweeted 16 times; and the third had 487 followers and wasn’t retweeted once. Just because someone hasn’t retweeted an allegation doesn’t mean they haven’t read and digested it, or even rehashed the allegation and repeated it in another form of wording. Yet, these figures suggest it’s actually surprisingly difficult to spread gossip via Twitter.

One of the Twitter users accused of blackening Lord McAlpine’s reputation is the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, Sally Bercow. On 4 November she tweeted: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*”, before later apologising several times when it became clear he had been wrongly smeared.

Thanks to the statistics served up by Twitter, we can get some indication of how widely her initial tweet spread. The @SallyBercow account has 58,530 followers at the time of writing, yet according to the details of the tweet about McAlpine, it was retweeted only 125 times. That means only a fifth of one per cent of Bercow’s followers deemed it newsworthy enough to repeat.

A quick scan down the list of 125 people who retweeted Bercow’s initial indiscretion shows that many  have only tens or low hundreds of followers – I haven’t got time to generate an exact average, but I’d estimate the average number of followers for people who retweeted the message would be around 250. In other words, the maximum potential audience for Bercow’s tweet would be her own 58,530 followers plus the estimated 25,000 followers of her retweeters: 83,530 in total. The actual number of people who read that tweet would be a small fraction of that figure. The number who understood what she was driving at, or even knew who Lord McAlpine was (he’s hardly a household name, after all) would be even smaller.

I’m not arguing that Twitter users should be free to tweet wild allegations with impunity; I’m not suggesting that Lord McAlpine has no right to be upset about his reputation being unfairly tarnished on social networks. But I do hope that his lawyers, and perhaps ultimately the courts, accept that tweets don’t have the reach or impact that they may have feared.

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