Think before You Tweet - Legal World Has Caught Up; Lord McAlpine's Legal Action against the BBC and Up to 10,000 Tweeters Could Have Profound Consequences for Other Users of Social Networking Sites. in Fact, the Case May Change the Way We Use Social Media Forever Says Expertle/ Hugh Hitchcock

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CONSERVATIVE peer Lord Mc-Alpine has rightfully received a PS185,000 settlement from the BBC after it broadcast a botched Newsnight report into child abuse at a North Wales care home.

He was mistakenly implicated, by the November 2 broadcast, in a paedophile ring that targeted children at the care home in Wrexham.

Lord McAlpine has also received a PS125,000 settlement from ITV after presenter Phillip Schofield handed the Prime Minister a list of alleged abusers live on the This Morning show on November 8. Unfortunately for the broadcaster, some of the names on the list - which were taken from various internet sites - were clearly visible to viewers.

Most worryingly for those of us outside of media circles, he is also perfectly properly considering legal action against the estimated 10,000 tweeters who falsely accused him of being a paedophile on the social networking site, and have failed to withdraw or delete their statements. Through litigation McAlpine is making a very clear point - every tweet or social media post is a publication rendering the author potentially liable, and in every 140 characters we type or share, we could be inviting a lawsuit.

The increasing usage of social media, blogs and user-generated content led to the UK Government producing a new Defamation Bill in May. The new bill seeks to address the issue of who exactly is the author of content - as secondary publishers such as forum hosts and social media sites cannot be responsible for the words of every single post that goes online through their channels.

Interestingly, on his insistence, the majority of the so-called "McAlpine Tweeters" will only have to apologise and make a small charitable donation. But, the other 500 million Twitter users should be watching and listening carefully. This may be the first example of somebody suing 10,000 users for comments on the same subject, but it is by no means the first high-profile case of bad behaviour on Twitter that has led to legal intervention.

We only need to look back to early November for the most recent Welsh case of legal proceedings being brought for damaging online posts.

Nine people were each forced to pay PS624 to a woman raped by former Wales footballer Ched Evans, after admitting to revealing her name on Twitter and Facebook.

They were all charged with publishing material likely to lead members of the public to identify the complainant in a rape case, contrary to the Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992.

As this case shows, more and more people are blurring the distinctions between the kind of a private conversation you might have in the pub, or over a garden fence, and a highly visible public comment posted on the internet for the world to see. Tweets are not private and by no means disappear like words in conversation - in legal terms, every time a website is "hit", it is considered as being republished, therefore pages can never go out-of-date unless they are taken down. The potential audience is unfathomably large, and the mode and extent of visibility are highly relevant factors to the level of damages awarded to the defamed.

However, even after a person has deleted a post, they can still find themselves in legal hot water. …