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Posted on November 16th, 2012 by Barry Collins

How much damage did Twitter really do to Lord McAlpine?

Bercow tweet

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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24 Responses to “ How much damage did Twitter really do to Lord McAlpine? ”

  1. MJ Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 11:39 am

    Retweets are only half the story of course. Once something is trending, or you hear about some “secret” and you go looking, then you can use the search facilities to view tweets from people you do not follow. But that at heart comes from the initial allegation in the mainstream – without that no one would bother looking.

  2. dubiou Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 11:39 am

    I didn’t see the Newsnight in question, but my understanding is that he was never mentioned by name. How exactly is the £185k justified?

  3. Simon Tompkins Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 11:52 am

    Hiya, when you restated a twitter were you aware that spreading the exact wording of a a tweet that may be the subject of a libel case makes you vulnerable yourself to civil proceedings?

  4. David Wright Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 12:10 pm


    Maybe it would be good, even if he only received a few quid from each tweeter, so that people realise that they can’t propagate unsubstantiated rumours on social networks, any more than they can on any other broadcast medium.

  5. JD Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 12:21 pm

    Good column.

    Some daft comments above.

    Newsnight didn’t name him but they didn’t have to – they offered enough information for any curious journalist could to work out who was being alluded to. The law understands that.

    And PC Pro would not be subject to civil proceedings for this column. The context is totally different now that McAlpine has gone public.

  6. wittgenfrog Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 12:46 pm

    Whilst I’ve some sympathy for Lord McAlpine, I feel he and his legal team are milking the whole fiasco for as much publicity (and cash) as possible.

    The BBC, in particular, has not merely grovelled, it is now like a sick, beaten dog that cringes whenever anyone comes near. Given that the BBC itself never named McAlpine I think their apology ought to have sufficed. Lord M is no-longer a “Public” figure, and plenty rich enough already.

    Lest we forget Lord McAlpine was a very senior Tory Politician, to the right of the Party. I’m sure he was pretty upset by all the brouhaha, but I also suspect there is another agenda in play. The way he has managed this affair seems to have been intended to destabilise the BBC as much as possible.
    This view is supported to some extent, by a Radio discussion involving some generic Toryboy a few days ago. He was happy to admit unashamedly that he was out to “bash” the BBC which he still considers to be irredeemably “left wing”, too big and (parenthetically) competing too effectively with the likes of Murdoch.

    This whole sorry business has given these people, aided & abetted by their mates in the Press, the stick they needed both to undermine the Beeb, and to divert attention away from their own misdemeanours as chronicled in the impending arrival of the Levinson Report.

    I’m also surprised and disappointed that Lord McAlpine and his Lawyer are “pursuing” the various tweeters with such venom.
    Many of them did defame him, but I rather doubt anyone in the known Universe is unaware that any allegations against him have now been retracted. It seems ungracious therefore to be so vindictive. Of course unlike Press barons, most of these people will be too poor to fight back….

  7. Richard Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 2:11 pm

    While the scale of damage may well need to be assessed by the court based on the degree of coverage it received, the defamation was real. If you say an unknown person is being investigated for possible wrong actions and more details will follow when they are available. You should be in the clear, If you say “A short fat balding 22 year old woman who wears skirts that are too short, has terrible legs and votes for X party” the range of options would be considerably reduced.
    I am not sure how far intent is considered by the courts when assessing damages, i.e. should the statement have been intended to cause alarm, panic, injury or some other predictable, outcome then they may well take a less lenient line.
    Breaking the law is like being pregnant, you are either on one side or the other there can be no grey, Repeating some else’s folly does not make it sensible.
    Disclaimer, the fictional woman described above has been made as unlikely as possible. If anyone feels able to identify any person fitting the description, perhaps you need to join the unsolved crimes unit of your local police!

  8. Jon Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 2:35 pm

    The threatening tone of McAlpine’s lawyers on the radio yesterday did tend to diminish much of the sympathy I had for the man. This stinks of vengeance rather than justice and does not reflest well on him

  9. russell g Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 4:56 pm

    The BBC is too left wing! I do wonder in the BBC would have been so eager to forgo basic journalistic standards if a senior ex-Labour politician had been implicated. In the aftermath a lot of people have been saying what a quality organisation the BBC is and how people (especially in other countries) look up to the quality of it’s journalism, that is either a)patently not true or b)based on a false premise. I don’t think the size of the award or chasing after twitter users is necessarily going to reflect well on McAlpine however.

  10. Cja Says:
    November 16th, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    As much as I admire the length at which you go to defend Twitter, it is the abusers of communication who are under fire here. Mrs Bercow has obviously got a large proportion of journalistic followers. They, in turn, broadcast her assumptions to a significantly larger audience. Shame on them both, but she knew her audience, she was attention seeking and she clearly wasn’t concerned about the implications of her actions. Sadly, mud thrown sticks.
    Any man, rich or poor, does not deserve to have his reputation maligned unjustly. Nor should he be further criticised for the tone his solicitors set in response.
    Twitter is not under fire here: it is the bad judgement, gossip mongering and misuse of the publicity it can generate that is.
    Sally Bercow, has a high public profile that one can say she has not personally earned. Nonetheless, she thoroughly deserves to be prosecuted for deliberate libelous comments on a public forum.

  11. dubiou Says:
    November 17th, 2012 at 2:37 am

    @ JD
    I heard how the unidentified person was described and from that information I was able to deduce… precisely nothing. Could have been any number of ex senior Tories. While the report undoubtedly fuelled the speculation that spread on Twitter, the actual naming occurred beyond the BBC, and that is where the damage began.
    @ MJ
    So you’re saying Newsnight is culpable because it made people look for a name? You don’t think that maybe it was the person who put the name in the public domain who is responsible? Imagine if no name was linked to the report and searchers were none the wiser – according to your reasoning Newsnight would still be responsible for defamation even though there’s now no victim.
    @ Richard
    “A short fat balding 22 year old woman who wears skirts that are too short, has terrible legs and votes for X party” is pretty specific (as you admit when you outline the unlikelihood of anyone matching that description). The Newsnight description was vague at best.
    @ russell g
    The BBC is not left wing. It is demonstrably pro-establishment. The oldest trick in the right wingers’ book is accusing any news outlet less fascist than Fox of being liberal media.

  12. Richard Says:
    November 17th, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Do you believe what you wrote?
    Or are you trying to draw fire defending the indefensible?
    Perhaps you are too young to know the bits of the jigsaw that news night and its trailers laid out. As for some such as that odious berck-cow, thank goodness I rarely go out at night and not where she haunts, so am unlikely ever to encounter her.

  13. Michael Says:
    November 17th, 2012 at 12:39 pm

    It is fine to do the maths and know who on Twitter was able to read it. However, the real damage is done when it is reported using other channels. So your argument falls apart when you consider that once a statement is made, it is in the public domain – not just limited to the people who could of possibly read it on Twitter. This is what the courts will consider. Bercow would understand that whatever she has said could be reported more widely – especially considering the desire for publicity she has exhibited in the past.
    Using your logic, if someone was to make a libellous statement in a meeting of five people, then this is the audience. That would not be true if it was more widely reported, especially in the press.
    So all the figures you quote are for nought. The law will decide on the overall damage has caused – not just the immediate audience on Twitter.
    I suspect however, that the court actions are to send out a signal that you would be held responsible for what you say on Twitter – which in my opinion, isn’t a bad thing.

  14. Richard Says:
    November 17th, 2012 at 2:27 pm

    I totally agree with you and all you have said. Let the fools show themselves for what they are by all means, but even fools should respect the laws.

  15. Jon Says:
    November 17th, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    @russell g: really? Remember Hutton?

  16. Jon Says:
    November 17th, 2012 at 8:53 pm

    @michael: the think that doesn’t add up are the double standards. Does any mention of Savile on twitter dangerous before all the inquiries conclude? Or is it only the rich and alive that are protected?

  17. Charles Marsh Says:
    November 20th, 2012 at 6:25 am

    The problem was too little information. Rumours abhor a vacuum and expand to fill the void. When more information became available, the problem was solved and Lord McAlpine’s reputation was restored.
    Twitter’s very openness was of benefit to Lord McAlpine. Instead of the rumours swirling around behind his back, as they would have done in the pre-Internet days, he could see them and confront them.
    English defamation law has been cited as one factor in Savile’s abuse only becoming public after his death. We’re still waiting on the Government’s liable reform, but it doesn’t look like it’s going to go anyway near far enough.
    Individually, each of his victims, and others who knew about the abuse, felt intimidated into not speaking out. Collectively, they have given a clear and compelling account. I would argue that having someone rich and powerful pick off Twitter users one by one using liable law isn’t helpful.
    As others have commented, Lord McAlpine should stop, and ask RMPI Solicitors to close the matter. For good or for ill, the Internet is becoming society’s collective memory. Although, ephemeral Twitter isn’t part of that. The more he persists, the more it will come to fill his more permanent Wikipedia entry.
    Whatever inquests and inquiries there are, they’re always backwards looking and they won’t stop the next scandal. Openness and free speech are the best defences. When a similar scandal does occur, we’ll look back to this one, with Savile on the one hand and Lord McAlpine on the other. Lord McAlpine doesn’t want to be remembered as a person who, by chilling speech, assisted the next Jimmy Savile.

  18. Barry Collins Says:
    November 20th, 2012 at 10:24 am

    There are plenty of insightful comments here – thanks very much for your contributions.

    Just to be clear, I wasn’t advocating that Bercow didn’t have a case to answer, just that the potential audience for her tweet may be considerably smaller than people suspect.

    The point raised by Michael of Bercow putting it into the public domain is a good one, but that doesn’t exempt any newspapers or broadcasters from libel proceedings if they repeat her claims.

    Barry Collins

  19. steveb Says:
    November 20th, 2012 at 3:05 pm

    All the questioning of MaA’s motives and debating the numbers involved are missing one key point – libel is libel and it really is time those who commit it on social media were called to account for their nonsense.


  20. Lisa Ansell Says:
    November 23rd, 2012 at 6:14 pm

    I disagree that an accusation of child abuse is the worst thing possible. THis is logically and in terms of the protection of children problematic. Children who cannot process abuse or talk about the abuse they have suffered at the hands of someone they care about, frequently misaccuse someone in their confusion, and by focusing on that person they are able to talk about their abuse. It becomes very apparent very quickly that the person is wrong but the abuse is real. To say that that accusation is the worst thing possible places responsibility for doing the worst thing possible to an adult on an abused child demonstrating normal behaviour. That the media cannot behave responsibly with such an accusation is not the same as saying it is the worst libel possible.

  21. p33t Says:
    November 27th, 2012 at 7:51 am

    Just a simple arithmetical question – 125 followers retweeting on to on average 250 followers each comes to over 30,000 not 25,000. And then how many of them re-re-tweeted, and how many of their followers retweeted etc. This could quickly become a very big number surely?

  22. wittgenfrog Says:
    November 28th, 2012 at 12:02 am

    Of course you’re right, in principle, but the reality is that whereas you or I would be helpless in the face of libel by the rich & powerful, the opposite is generally not true.

    The poor bloke accused of murdering his neighbour by the gutter press has only secured recompense through Levinson. Countless others weren’t so lucky.

  23. tyronet2000 Says:
    December 13th, 2012 at 11:33 am

    Who cares ? I would say none at all

  24. Loverat Says:
    December 23rd, 2012 at 6:16 pm

    Well, some interesting comments here. However, the amount of compensation received to date is sufficient. Making demands of £50K off Sally Bercow is now a step too far. Besides you cannot demand that sum of money from an individual as if their tweet(s) was the sole or main cause of the damage. All the tweets have to be considered as a whole.

    The behaviour of RMPI is ludicrous and the type judges have slapped down in the past when litigants/solicitors have got too greedy or have acted in an unrestrained manner as is the case here. There are several precedants where judges have stepped in to prevent overcompensaion and abuse of process.

    If this case proceeds, I suspect it is doomed to fail.


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