Libel more damaging if it has potential to "go viral", court rules

The case could have a large effect on freedom of speech on sites like Twitter.

Thanks to a recent Court of Appeal ruling, Twitter could soon be far from a realm for the free expression we are supposedly entitled to as citizens of the EU. The Times last week published a law report from the case of Chris Cairns, New Zealand cricketer who was falsely accused of match fixing on Twitter. (False accusations on Twitter - very 2012). What’s interesting about this judgement is that damages were upheld not only due to the false nature of what was claimed, but because of the rumour’s potential to have gone viral. Ergo, the more widely spread the defamatory statement, the more damages should be awarded.

If this judgement is latched on to and the case ultimately sets a precedent, it is unclear what method would be used to decide on the level of damages. The ubiquitous nature of the internet and Twitter in particular means that word spreads, usually beyond an individual’s control, making this seem an obscure way of assessing damages. Perhaps the claimant could get a pound for every retweet?

The basis behind the ruling makes sense; it was, after all, taken from a dictum in the 1990 case of Slipper v BBC that stated “defamatory statements are objectionable not least because of their propensity to percolate through underground channels and contaminate hidden springs”. The problem is that in 1990 the web was only just taking off, and modern social networking was decades away. The principle has been taken and distorted to apply to an entirely different world, where consequences are certainly more severe.

The internet is modern society’s vehicle for free speech, and is essential for a democratic society. Jonathan Coad previously raised the question in his recent article for the New Statesman whether or not it is right to regulate social networks in the same way as national publications. The framework legislation dates back to 1996, so it is arguable that even these are outdated parameters for our changed society.

Equilibrium must be achieved. There is a balance between the Article 10 right to free speech and the equally important entitlement to a fair reputation, but with England being renowned for its exceedingly claimant-friendly libel laws it is worrying that this judgement may tip the balance and ultimately end up deterring free expression across social networking sites.

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The boy who lies: what the Daily Prophet can teach us about fake news

The students at Hogwarts are living in an echo chamber of secrets.

They can make objects levitate, conjure up spirit animals and harness the power of invisibility. But perhaps the strangest thing about the witches and wizards of the Harry Potter universe is that despite all their magic, they still rely on old-fashioned print media for their news.

Although the Daily Prophet bills itself as “the wizarding world’s beguiling broadsheet of choice”, the reality is that its readers have no choice at all. Wizards don’t have their own television network – the risk of muggles accidentally tuning in was deemed too high – they don’t generally use the internet, and rival publications are virtually non-existent. (No, Witch Weekly doesn’t count.)

JK Rowling clearly sought to satirise the press in her portrayal of the Prophet, particularly through its poisonous celebrity journalist Rita Skeeter and her tenuous relationship with the truth. And in doing so, the author highlighted a phenomenon that has since become embedded within the muggle political landscape – fake news, and how quickly it can spread.

In the run-up to the recent French presidential election, an Oxford University study found that up to a quarter of related political stories shared on Twitter were fake – or at least passing off “ideologically extreme” opinion as fact.

While they don’t have social media at Hogwarts – probably for the better, despite the countless Instagram opportunities that would come with living in an enchanted castle – made-up stories travel fast by word of mouth (or owl.) The students are so insulated from the outside world, the house system often immersing them in an echo chamber of their peers, they frequently have no way to fact-check rumours and form rational opinions about current events.

When the Ministry of Magic flatly refuses to believe that Voldemort has returned – and uses the Prophet to smear Harry and Dumbledore – most students and their parents have no choice but to believe it. “ALL IS WELL”, the Prophet’s front page proclaims, asking pointedly whether Harry is now “The boy who lies?”

While Harry eventually gets his side of the story published, it’s in The Quibbler – a somewhat niche magazine that’s not exactly light on conspiracy theories – and written by Skeeter. He is telling the truth – but how is anyone to really know, given both the questionable magazine and Skeeter’s track record?

After Voldemort’s followers take over the Ministry, the Prophet stops reporting deaths the Death Eaters are responsible for and starts printing more fake stories – including a claim that muggle-born wizards steal their magical powers from pure-bloods.

In response, Harry and his allies turn to their other meagre sources such as The Quibbler and Potterwatch, an underground pirate radio show that requires a password to listen – useful to some, but not exactly open and accessible journalism.

Rowling is clear that Harry’s celebrity makes it hard for him to fit in at Hogwarts, with fellow students often resenting his special status. Do so many believe the Prophet’s smear campaign because they were unconsciously (or actively) looking forward to his downfall?

We are certainly more likely to believe fake news when it confirms our personal biases, regardless of how intelligently or critically we think we look at the world. Could this explain why, at the start of last week, thousands of social media users gleefully retweeted a Daily Mail front page calling on Theresa May to step down that was blatantly a poorly-edited fake?

The non-stop Hogwarts rumour mill illustrates the damage that a dearth of reliable sources of information can cause to public debate. But at the other end of the scale, the saturation of news on the muggle internet means it can also be hugely challenging to separate fact from fiction.

No one is totally free from bias – even those people or sources whose opinions we share. In this world of alternative facts, it is crucial to remember that all stories are presented in a certain way for a reason – whether that’s to advance a political argument, reaffirm and promote the writer’s own worldview, or stop an inconvenient teenage wizard from interfering with the Ministry of Magic’s plans.

Now read the other articles included in the New Statesman’s Harry Potter Week.

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