Calling all Twitter users: if you believe in the internet, regulate yourselves
There is a moment in Monty Python’s Life Of Brian when Brian wakes up in bed with his new girlfriend, and opens the shutters.
Standing there at the window, he is confronted by a crowd convinced he is the Messiah.
“You don’t need to follow me, you don’t need to follow anybody,” he yells, exasperated. “You’ve got to think for yourselves. You are all individuals.”
“We’re all individuals!” the crowd echoes.
“You’re all different,” he tries again. “Yes, we are all different!” the crowd shouts, in unison.
As a visualisation for the mob dynamic on the internet, this scene takes some beating.
Just ask Lord McAlpine, who was wrongly identified as the “top Tory” who was the subject of a flawed BBC Newsnight investigation into paedophilia. The programme didn’t name McAlpine, although many internet users put two and two together and came up with the same wrong answer as the Newsnight team.
Of the 10,000 involved in tweeting or retweeting claims, those with less than 500 followers will be asked to apologise and make a small donation to charity. Those with more followers may have to pay more.
What’s astonishing about the case is how many of these 10,000 people should have known better. They include the Guardian columnist George Monbiot; comedian and QI presenter Alan Davies; a handful of journalists; and Sally Bercow, the wife of the House of Commons speaker, John Bercow.
Lawyers for the 70-year-old McAlpine have said people need to understand that the internet is not “a closed gossip coffee shop”, where you can say “the nastiest thing possible with impunity”.
They’re absolutely right. I look on Twitter as a kind of daily miracle – an exchange of ideas; a magical noticeboard; a place to vent, to be inspired, and, yes, to gossip. To date, I have racked up an alarming 20,000 tweets.
But even so, I can’t help feeling there’s something wrong with a club in which you are more likely to be sanctioned by your peers for revealing a plot spoiler in Homeland than you are for wrongly accusing someone of paedophilia.
In the three and a half years I have been on the service, I have encountered some of what might kindly be called fringe elements – but mostly my experience is that Twitter users are the same as people you meet anywhere. They are, by turns, supportive, friendly, incisive, hilarious, inspiring – and occasionally boring, rude or cruel.
But in that time there has also been an upsurge in some less pleasant aspects of crowd behaviour, including a rush to a kind of competitive outrage.