Scurrilous Internet Rumours and the Death of Privacy

By Glover, Stephen | Daily Mail (London), December 2, 2002 | Go to article overview

Scurrilous Internet Rumours and the Death of Privacy


Glover, Stephen, Daily Mail (London)


Byline: STEPHEN GLOVER

YESTERDAY, a highly damaging story about David Beckham was repeated in a Sunday redtop. The newspaper acknowledged it was totally untrue, but published the details to prove how absurd they were. The story had originally appeared some days previously on the internet.

Because the Mail observes the laws of libel, and is governed by considerations of decency and fairness, it had chosen not to publish the story.

The false rumours, however, have been disseminated endlessly on the internet, where the laws of libel barely apply, and where considerations of decency and fairness certainly do not. An anonymous user had simply emailed the story to the www.popbitch.com message board. David Beckham's lawyers, through threat of legal action, forced the website which had publicised it to remove it, and the site has since discouraged other visitors from repeating the libel.

But the lie itself could not be excised. It is like a virus which, once it has entered the bloodstream of the worldwide web, multiplies itself thousands and then millions of times. Internet users have exchanged the story and it has been talked about in chat rooms until, in some minds, it must have acquired the status of truth.

SIMILARLY, before recent allegations concerning Ulrika Jonsson and John Leslie surfaced in the mainstream media, they were reportedly circulated and discussed in lurid detail on the internet. Mr Leslie was convicted and condemned in some quarters, and his presumed guilt was spread about as though it were fact.

At issue here is the death of privacy and of secrecy.

Newspapers, though they sometimes err, are supposed to respect the privacy of individuals; D-notices and similar regulations generally ensure that they do not blurt out secrets whose publication might damage the national interest. In stark contrast, people can publish whatever they like on the internet, and challenge the values of civilised society.

The phenomenon of unregulated gossip is obviously not new. In any village pub since time immemorial, people have traded scandals, some of which may have a core of truth, and some of which are wholly fictitious. The squire is having an affair. The vicar's wife is taking Prozac. The doctor's surgery is about to be turned into a lap-dancing club.

But there are important differences with the internet. In any local community, people's speculation and gossip are moderated by their social relationships. You may think twice about inventing damaging stories about the squire or the vicar's wife for fear of meeting them, and having to answer for what you have said. Local gossip can also be checked against outcome. The village gossip whose tales are perennially shown to be baseless will, in the end, not be taken seriously.

The internet is different.

Because it is transnational, it is not limited to a community which shares knowledge, culture and values. You or I could today invent a damaging story about the editor of The Times or the Archbishop of Canterbury and anonymously post it on the worldwide web.

An internet user in Ontario or Mozambique would have little means of assessing whether or not it was baseless.

And, just like the inventor of the Beckham story, we would never be identified.

This particular fantasist may conceivably have been mischievous rather than malevolent.

Imagine what scandalous stories a disgruntled employee who had been sacked could dream up about his boss. While retaining anonymity, such a person could do untold damage to his former employer - making allegations which, though robustly denied, would never be forgotten - and yet remain beyond the reach of the libel laws. …

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