Dangers of Twitter storms highlighted by Weinstein fallout

Social media users who dislike the law should campaign to have it changed

Ciara Kelly: posted tweets describing an unnamed, “prominent” Irish male who is accused by various unnamed people of serial rape, wife-beating, unlawful detention and relentless harassment. Photograph: Twitter

Ciara Kelly: posted tweets describing an unnamed, “prominent” Irish male who is accused by various unnamed people of serial rape, wife-beating, unlawful detention and relentless harassment. Photograph: Twitter

 

As a rookie journalist, I once accused a group of gentlemen providing a certain tourist service of an outrageous rip-off. Having been stupendously overcharged, I busily acquired dozens of anecdotes to back up my outrage.

Not good enough.

Where a group is clear, small and identifiable and members stand accused of something fairly heinous, there are rules. Individuals must be named, witnesses located who are prepared to be quoted and documentary evidence obtained if possible. Otherwise, every man in that group stands accused.

It was instructive. To this cringing rookie, it generated what seemed like one of the longest apologies in newspaper history. Worse, it probably freed the culprits to rip off tourists for another few decades.

One of the great achievements of the #metoo movement is the arc of revelation all the way from soul-sapping, everyday sexism to rape.

But therein lies danger. In the rush to unburden ourselves, certain principles of natural justice are at risk.

Guessing games

In recent days, some conversations have descended into guessing games. Who was the alleged brute at the centre of the tweets posted by Ciara Kelly, a GP turned radio presenter. They describe an unnamed, “prominent” Irish male, working in a named industry for a specified number of years, who is accused by various unnamed people of serial rape, wife-beating, unlawful detention and relentless harassment.

Kelly tweeted a simple, open appeal to other possible victims: “If you think you know who I’m talking about . . . & if you have been affected please contact me and let’s try to right this. . .”

Since the woman who revealed the initial, decades-old rape allegation to Kelly had said there were “lots of us”, the desired outcome is obvious and commendable. They would all get together with Kelly, establish a pattern of criminal behaviour by this man, and try to right it. Or, was it more likely, in a small country, in an industry with a few big fish, that such an open call with such detail would trigger waves of speculation and that someone would be publicly named as a rapist? There would then be the obvious, catastrophic downside of jeopardising any chance of a fair trial or conviction.

Twitter users responded with concerns that the speculation would lead to the man being named, thus handing him a get-out-of-jail card; that wrong names would be posted; that a woman reporting a decades-old crime should be directed to the Garda or a rape crisis centre. Some expressed discomfort about the Kelly approach but wondered what years of silence had achieved. And yep, there was speculation. Because who ever suggested that Twitter was peopled mainly with informed, measured, reflective souls?

Someone named a large, national public event at which the alleged rapist was allegedly prominent. Someone helpfully provided the year. Another big name in attendance with him was mentioned, narrowing the choice significantly.

Referring to a completely separate set of allegations which surfaced recently, another tweeter mocked a radio host for hesitating to mention a front page story in a Sunday newspaper: “All they have to state is that it is reported in the paper – that can’t be libel – that’s fact.”

In relation to the case she had raised, Kelly saw the downside as proportionate: “I don’t personally believe that people ‘speculating’ is a more important issue than a serial predator and abuser who has hurt women for decades [and] getting away with it. If you see it differently, so be it”, she tweeted.

Defamation

But in the meantime she had implicitly acknowledged the problem by posting a tweet asking people not to name anyone “here on twitter. You are defaming them and please understand this isn’t a name and shame situation. I am attempting to bring women together who have been victims so they can get due process.”

Personal testimonies are vital. They are usually acquired by personal contact or by inviting people to write to a secure, confidential mailbox. It can be a lengthy, tedious, lonely, risky business even where there is no suggestion of criminality.

One poster in another case over the weekend referred to how she had sought and considered lengthy legal advice before deciding what to put on social media. She posted a blog describing deeply misogynistic, bullying behaviour by a named individual and a separate piece advising people how to write up their own experience.

If you don’t like the law, campaign to change the law. Meanwhile, do no harm.