Be careful what you tweet
Nothing said online is really private, says Bill Thompson
Online tools and services such as Twitter and Facebook create a social space that encourages informality, rapid responses and the sort of conversation that typically takes place between friends in contexts that are either private or public-private, like the street, pub or cafe.
One example of the sort of casual interaction that we increasingly find online is the way that the government's Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox uses textspeak in her tweets and is happy to send a message like:
@edvaizey see u in a bit ;)
when she is about to meet Arts Minister Ed Vaizey.
Unfortunately, online interaction has other characteristics which are very different from those of a casual conversation in a cafe.
Not least the fact that many services make comments visible to large numbers of people and search engines ensure that a permanent record is kept of every inane observation, spiteful aside or potentially libellous comment on a respected public figure.
This is something that TV nutritionist Gillian McKeith has just discovered the hard way, and her experience offers a salutary lesson for anyone who wants to use social media tools to enhance their reputation rather than expose themselves to public ridicule.
It all started last week when Twitter user @rachelemoody made a remark about Bad Science, Dr Ben Goldacre's much admired book on the poor state of media coverage of medicine and science. The book includes a chapter that criticises Gillian McKeith's work:
Can't sleep - so excited about the next chapter of #BadScience - It's the one on Gillian McKeith. (not Phd).
The comment, which was publicly visible, garnered an angry response from the Twitter account @gillianmckeith accusing its author of anti-Americanism because she questioned the status of Gillian McKeith's doctorate, which was gained by correspondence course from a non-accredited US college.
After a few more disparaging comments @gillianmckeith then tweeted:
How sad a life to enjoy reading lies about another by an ass who makes money from pharmaceutical giants.
Ben Goldacre followed up by tweeting:
hi @gillianmckeith, i'm writing a piece about you libelling me in the context of #libelreform, can you pls contact firstname.lastname@example.org thnks
At which point an extraordinary series of events ensued, including a number of tweets designed to make it appear that the @gillianmckeith Twitter account was not really her official one and the removal of a link to that account from Ms McKeith's website.
This was not very effective, since the link to Twitter was removed by commenting it out in the HTML source code and so was still clearly visible to anyone who looked for it.
There is no way to know exactly who sent the tweet from the @gillianmckeith account, or to know why and under whose instructions the link to Twitter from the website was commented out.
But it is clear that someone with access to the officially sanctioned Twitter account, one that was linked to Ms McKeith as strongly as as it could be, said something that Ben Goldacre could reasonably construe as libellous and which any journalist with a modicum of training in media law would consider actionable.
Since tweets have no legal immunity, Ben Goldacre could, if he wished, instruct lawyers to sue Gillian McKeith, but of course as a prominent supporter of libel reform he does not actually want to do this.
His first response was to ask for a carefully worded statement to be posted on Twitter, saying "Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is not lies", and when I bumped into him last weekend at the Latitude Festival he reiterated this position.
It is the online equivalent of a newspaper publishing an apology or correction with the same prominence and in the same place as the original story on the basis that people who read the original are likely to see the correction.
Once Bing, Google and other search engines have picked up the tweet then searches for "bad science mckeith" will find both the original and the correction, since the original will never vanish from the archive.
So far there is no sign that this will be done, and indeed the efforts to distance @gillianmckeith from Ms McKeith would seem to indicate that someone has decided that the best strategy is to create uncertainty about the provenance of the original tweet and hope things will blow over.
This is a serious mistake, not only because the connection between @gillianmckeith and the official site is clear and well-documented but because Ben Goldacre is a tenacious and eloquent opponent who enjoys the support of large numbers of people who consider him a vital opponent of proponents of bogus treatments, misleading surveys and magical thinking. He is not to be trifled with, online or off.
The decision over what to do now rests with Gillian McKeith and her team of online advisors, and I would not wish to influence their decision. But the situation offers a stark warning to anyone using social network sites and services that tweeting in haste may leave you to repent at leisure.
We may eventually develop a set of social rules and legal conventions that acknowledge that an angry tweet is less likely to be considered defamatory than a published article, but we are not there yet.
Bill Thompson is an independent journalist and regular commentator on the BBC World Service programme Digital Planet. He is currently working with the BBC on its archive project.