Be Careful What You Tweet: Goldacre/McKeith (as seen on BBC News Online)

[You can also read this on BBC News Online ]

Online tools and services like Twitter and Facebook create a social space that encourages informality, rapid responses and the sort of conversation that typically takes place between friends in contexts that are either private or public-private, like the street, pub or cafe.
One example of the sort of casual interaction that we increasingly find online is the way that the government’s Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox uses textspeak in her tweets and is happy to send a message like:

@edvaizey see u in a bit 😉
when she is about to meet Arts Minister Ed Vaizey.

Unfortunately online interaction has other characteristics which are very different from those of a casual conversation in a cafe, not least the fact that many services make comments visible to large numbers of people and search engines ensure that a permanent record is kept of every inane observation, spiteful aside or potentially libellous comment on a respected public figure.

This is something that TV nutritionist Gillian McKeith has just discovered the hard way, and her experience offers a salutory lesson for anyone who wants to use social media tools to enhance their reputation rather than expose themselves to public riducule.
It all started last week when Twitter user @rachelemoody made a remark about Bad Science, Dr Ben Goldacre’s much admired book on the poor state of media coverage of medicine and science. The book includes a chapter that criticises Gillian McKeith’s work:

Can’t sleep – so excited about the next chapter of #BadScience – It’s the one on Gillian McKeith. (not Phd).

The comment, which was publicly visible, garnered an angry response from the twitter account @gillianmckeith accusing its author of anti-Americanism because she questioned the status of Gillian McKeith’s doctorate, which was gained by correspondence course from a non-accredited US college.
After a few more disparaging comments @gillianmckeith then tweeted:

how sad a life to enjoy reading lies about another by an ass who makes money from pharmaceutical giants.

Ben Goldacre followed up by tweeting
hi @gillianmckeith, i’m writing a piece about you libelling me in the context of #libelreform, can you pls contact thnks

At which point an extraordinary series of events ensued, including a number of tweets designed to make it appear that the @gillianmckeith Twitter account was not really her official one and the removal of a link to that account from Ms McKeith’s website. This was not very effective, since the link to Twitter was removed by commenting it out in the HTML source code and so was still clearly visible to anyone who looked for it.

There is no way to know exactly who sent the tweet from the @gillianmckeith account, or to know why and under whose instructions the link to Twitter from the website was commented out, but it is clear that someone with access to the officially sanctioned Twitter account, one that was linked to Ms McKeith as strongly as as it could be, said something that Ben Goldacre could reasonably construe as libellous and which any journalist with a modicum of training in media law would consider actionable.
Since tweets have no legal immunity, Ben Goldacre could, if he wished, instruct lawyers to sue Gillian McKeith, but of course as a prominent supporter of libel reform he does not actually want to do this.
His first response was to ask for a carefully worded statement to be posted on Twitter, saying ‘Bad Science by Ben Goldacre is not lies’, and when I bumped into him last weekend at the Latitude Festival he reiterated this position. It is the online equivalent of a newspaper publishing an apology or correction with the same prominence and in the same place as the original story on the basis that people who read the original are likely to see the correction. Once Bing, Google and other search engines have picked up the tweet then searches for ‘bad science mckeith’ will find both the original and the correction, since the original will never vanish from the archive.

So far there is no sign that this will be done, and indeed the efforts to distance @gillianmckeith from Ms McKeith would seem to indicate that someone has decided that the best strategy is to create uncertainty about the provenance of the original tweet and hope things will blow over.
This is a serious mistake, not only because the connnection between @gillianmckeith and the official site is clear and well-documented but because Ben Goldacre is a tenacious and eloquent opponent who enjoys the support of large numbers of people who consider him a vital opponent of proponents of bogus treatments, misleading surveys and magical thinking. He is not to be trifled with, online or off.

The decision over what to do now rests with Gillian McKeith and her team of online advisors, and I would not wish to influence their decision. But the situation offers a stark warning to anyone using social network sites and services that tweeting in haste may leave you to repent at leisure. We may eventually develop a set of social rules and legal conventions that acknowledge that an angry tweet is less likely to be considered defamatory than a published article, but we are not there yet. Bill’s Links

Gillian McKeith (wikipedia)

Good summary of what happened:,news-comment,news-politics,gillian-mckeit…

Ben Goldacre’s perspective:…

Jack of Kent’s Perspective:…

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Step Away from the iPod (as published on BBC News online)

For those who didn’t see this on the BBC News website, my latest column:

Step Away from the iPod
The government thinks phones and MP3 Players are too dangerous to be allowed in schools. Bill Thompson disagrees

Later this week I’ll be at the Latitude Festival in Suffolk, one of the nicest and easy-going events around, enjoying Florence and the Machine, Tom Jones, Robin Ince and Luke Wright in the wonderful setting of Henham Hall.

I’m looking forward to wandering from stage to stage, to the variety of musical styles, the cabaret, the poetry and of course the multi-coloured sheep that grace the fields around.

As with most big events these days there’ll be a bag search for everyone entering the site, looking for items like glass bottles – which break too easily – knives and illegal drugs. But it seems I should also expect to lose some other items from my bag, like my iPod and my mobile phone. After all, if the new Schools Minister considers them to be too dangerous to be allowed in school they should probably be banned everywhere.

This new policy was announced on July 6 in a written statement to Parliament from Schools Minister Nick Gibb, whose responsibilities include ‘Behaviour and attendance’ and ‘bullying’, though that presumably refers to reducing bullying rather than being too bossy with his civil servants.

He wants to extend the powers that teachers currently have to search pupils for knives or other weapons, and has told schools that from September they will be allowed to search for alcohol, controlled drugs, and stolen property.
However he also plans to add to the list of items which are considered so undesirable or dangerous that students must be forced to surrender their civil liberties and allow teachers to search them, and from the autumn this will include fireworks, legal highs – ie completely legal chemicals – pornography, cigarettes and ‘personal electronic devices such as mobile phones, MP3 players and cameras’.

Press coverage of the proposed new powers has been overwhelmingly positive, with The Daily Mail announcing that ‘Teachers will be given the power to confiscate phones and iPods – and anything else they view as disruptive’ and noting that ‘ministers believe that current confiscation powers are too vague and weak, leaving staff and pupils at the mercy of classroom troublemakers’.

I can see why keeping fireworks off school premises is a good idea, but it is hard to justify the indignity of a personal search, with all that it entails for the relationship between a student and the staff, to search for legal items that the school just doesn’t like.
Phones and MP3 players aren’t actually considered dangerous, of course. If you want to throw something at a fellow student or a teacher then a mobile phone is too expensive and not particularly aerodynamic, so you’re better off getting your hands on a cricket ball or a javelin, both designed for the purpose and generally approved of on school premises.

And the searches are unlikely to be effective, as phones are quite easy to hide.

This is really just a form of discipline theatre, exactly like the ineffective, expensive and demeaning security theatre that has infected airports, where shoes and belts are removed to turn us into shuffling barefoot drones at the service of scanning staff and we must all consent to microwave scanning that presents our naked images to those charged with keeping us safe.

It will do nothing to improve behaviour in schools where teachers are not respected by their students.

However it could have a negative impact in other ways, as it enforces the idea that schools are places where ‘technology’ is something out there, a word processor or spreadsheet on a desktop PC to be used for a particular purpose, instead of something that permeates all aspects of our daily lives and is becoming increasingly important.
Back in 2008 I wrote (here: about the innovative ways mobiles were being used in teaching despite the ban on their use in class, and claimed that ‘the current restrictions are absurd, and will not last much longer’. It seems I was wrong, and that we’re instead going to see alienated and disaffected students being searched for their mobiles instead of being encouraged to find positive uses for the technology that is already in their pocket.

Digital Champion Martha Lane Fox might like to reflect that her campaign to get millions of people online in time for the 2012 Olympics is likely to rely on mobile access to government services, and that teaching the current generation of schoolchildren that mobile phones are the equivalent of fireworks and pornography could be giving them the wrong message.

Unless this is a cunning plan to make the latest generation of smartphones as cool as the other contraband, of course. But I rather doubt that was the intention.

Bill’s Links

Ministerial Statement:

Press Association coverage:…

The Express liked it:…

So did the Telegraph:…

And the Mail did too:…

Bill on Mobiles in Classrooms:

And the Telegraph too:…

Martha Lane Fox campaign:…

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