The former Prime Minister Lord (then James) Callaghan once memorably observed: "A lie can be halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on." Thanks to the Internet, the disadvantage under which truth labours is now even more severe. A lie can be all over the world instantly, and the truth can't find its boots.
The first electronic libel action in the UK was settled a few weeks ago when insurer Norwich Union paid out #450,000 to rival Western Provident.
Defamatory comments apparently circulated on the insurance giant's internal systems filtered out, inevitably, into the marketplace, much to the detriment of Western Provident.
There can't be many companies in which falsehoods about competitors do not circulate. To that extent, Norwich Union may simply have been unlucky.
But the case illustrates a number of unusual features of contemporary communications technology.
First, the technology seems to encourage gossip. There is no particular reason why this should take a malicious turn, except perhaps that gossip has to be malicious to be interesting. Besides, those with the time to indulge in gossip are proverbially guided by the Devil, the finder of work for idle hands.
Verbal gossip is one thing; gossip on the information superhighway is quite another. People seem disposed to believe what they see on the Net.
Statements they might take with a pinch of salt in another context seem likely to be swallowed whole.This is the only possible explanation for the perceived potential of the Net as a marketing vehicle. Company propaganda masquerades there as information; special pleading, exposed to no critical evaluation, appears as statements of fact. If users can tell the difference, why does spam generate so much irritation when company web sites do not?
At least the marketing specialists understand the rules. The gossips don't. Although they are chattering away over a broadcasting medium, they have none of the necessary scruples of the professional journalist or broadcaster. So there is no coy use of expressions like "alleged" or "sources close to ..." They must regard the self-protective circumlocutions of the journalist, trained to detect the line between fair comment and defamation, as no more applicable to them at a screen than over a beer in the pub after work.
This is where the innocence of Net users becomes a menace. The Net is often presented as some kind of Arcadia in which like-minded souls good-naturedly exchange information frankly, fearlessly and freely. Even if you accept such nonsense, it is obvious that the members of such a circle had better be sure of their facts. If they chose to air their views in the letters column of a newspaper the editor would apply certain standards.
On the Net, there is no editor. Lack of such restraints is widely regarded as one of the advantages of the medium. What airs these people give themselves, as though they were great artists struggling with the medium and writing their own rules.
So the protestations of innocence among the Net's denizens don't wash.
Their innocence is naivete. Sometimes charming, it can easily become offensive.
They may mean no harm, but ignorance is no excuse. As Graham Greene wrote: "God preserve us from all innocence; at least the guilty know what they're about."
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