How to outrun a lie on the internet

In between lobbying for maximalist copyright laws or wasting his money on crazy printing machines, Mark Twain could be a pretty clever chap. After all, it was he who quipped that “a lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” — an adage that seems ever-more powerful in our sped-up, sensationalized, super-connected culture.

You only have to look around you and see that the power of a lie is stronger than ever — in politics, in propaganda or anywhere else. And forget the shoes: some days it seems as if the truth hasn’t even found its pants on by the time a lie is racking up the air miles.

Just take the case of Lord McAlpine, once one of the most powerful politicians in Britain, who was taken by surprise when the internet launched a virulent — and completely misguided — campaign to label him a child rapist.

Just in case you haven’t been watching this mess exploding across the British media over the last few weeks, let me recap briefly. At the start of November, the BBC’s Newsnight program — already under fire for not running a story about allegations of pedophilia against a now-deceased BBC presenter — decided to prove its mettle by running a report claiming that a senior politician from the 1980s was, in fact, a child abuser.

While the report did not name the individual, speculation (inevitably) spilled out onto the net and the culprit hinted at in the report was widely identified: McAlpine, the man who helped finance Margaret Thatcher’s decade in power. Except it turned out the BBC had the wrong man, in a genuine case of mistaken identity that was blown up to mammoth, excruciating proportions by a series of basic journalistic failures.


Heads rolled: big ones. The BBC’s new boss George Entwistle (pictured) resigned, sending the corporation even deeper into turmoil and leaving some — including our own Mathew Ingram — to even question the validity of its role as a state-sanctioned broadcaster at all.

It is, as they say around these parts, a right old mess.

But how do you fix it? How can you make the truth more powerful than a falsehood?

McAlpine and his lawyers have decided to take recourse to the law and hold the internet accountable, by chasing “a very long list” of people who mentioned McAlpine’s name on Twitter and elsewhere. Here’s what they said:

“We know who you are; we know exactly the extent what you have done and it’s easier to come forward and apologise and arrange to settle us because this is cheaper’.”

I can’t fault McAlpine for wanting to recover his reputation. Who wouldn’t? But however many legal actions he launches, it is not the courts — or the threat of the courts — that will correct the wrong done against him. McAlpine — a millionaire who lives in Italy — doesn’t need the money. And the apologies don’t carry much weight really, since they come from people he has not met and never carry as far or as loud as accusations.

Not exactly free speech

British courts have found one, drastic way to try and curtail social media abuses. Over the last few months, we’ve seen a rash of court cases and even imprisonment resulting from offensive messages on social media: for racist comments about a sick sportsman, joking about a missing 5-year-old, saying soldiers should ‘go to hell’.

McAlpine’s fake accusers are unlikely to see a prison cell, since these would be civil actions — though you can never be sure the UK’s legislators won’t try and find a way to make it so: they wanted to shut down Facebook (s:FB) and Twitter after last year’s summer riots, after all, despite no evidence that they were used to incite violence.

In fact, however, the truth is that the fix has already been identified and deployed, because the lie has become news in and of its own right. The fact that McAlpine was wrongly implicated has, in fact, become a much bigger deal than the original report ever was. But it is only successful because of the very specific context (that it happened within the BBC, which everyone has an opinion about) and the severity of the response (that it led to the Beeb’s newly-installed boss performing a sudden act of seppuku).

The information network that so readily slandered him has stepped in to take action action because the fact the slander was wrong became more interesting. What the network taketh away, the network giveth, so to speak.

Unfortunately, while this may work for Lord McAlpine, but it won’t work for everyone. The trouble is that information is not self-correcting unless the truth is more interesting than the untruth. There are very few times that happens, and usually it’s because the lie is so big and dangerous that the blowback is violent.

The fact is, there aren’t many lessons in this mess. Perhaps if you want your indiscretions to get corrected, make them drastic enough that they can’t be ignored. Or, if you want a big lie to get skewered, make sure an international broadcaster is there to take the blame.

In the end, though, these are pretty tough conditions to replicate. And until you manage to do that, Mark Twain looks more and more right as each day passes.