In recent weeks, there have been some welcome apologies for false allegations made against innocent people online. We should treat these apologies as sincere, and as paving the way towards more constructive dialogue.
I’ve summarised the cases below. Individuals apologised to Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman, novelist John Boyne, and Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald, while publications apologised to author JK Rowling and Covington Catholic High School student Nicholas Sandmann.
I welcome these apologies as good people genuinely recognising that what they said was inaccurate and unjust. It can be difficult to admit that you were wrong. When good people realise that they have made mistakes, we should make it easy for them to change their behaviour.
Defamation is an enemy of free speech, and defamation laws apply equally online as they do elsewhere. As some of the examples below show, defamation can also form part of ‘cancel culture’ campaigns aimed at damaging people’s careers for unjust reasons.
A summary of the apologies
I am summarising the cases here, not to embarrass the people making the apologies, but to show the extent to which online culture has poisoned our dialogue. Good people feel justified in making very serious allegations about innocent people, while believing that they are themselves acting justly.
Actor John Connors apologised on Twitter to Minister for Children Roderic O’Gorman for casting hurtful and false assertions on his character during a wider campaign aimed at getting Roderic fired by wrongly associating him with the endorsement of child abuse. I have written about the defamatory smears against the Minister here.
Writer Aidan Comerford apologised on Twitter to novelist John Boyne for relentless online harassment that caused the novelist great distress. He had falsely suggested that John Boyne had engaged in transphobia, and implied that he is transphobic, on a number of occasions. I have written before about the difficulties of discussing sex and gender online.
Former Fianna Fáil TD Declan Breathnach apologised at the High Court to Sinn Féin leader Mary Lou McDonald for a tweet he published two years ago. He had falsely accused Mary Lou of condoning the murders of members of An Garda Síochána. The proceedings were settled on confidential terms. I have written about this case here.
The Day apologised to author JK Rowling for falsely implying that JK was transphobic and had attacked and harmed trans people, and for suggesting that their readers should shame her into changing her behaviour. They are making a contribution to a charity of her choice. I wrote here about a letter that JK Rowling signed with other writers about online discourse.
The Washington Post and CNN have both apologised to Kentucky schoolboy Nicholas Sandman for falsely claiming that he and his schoolmates had bullied a Native American drummer. The terms of both settlements are confidential. I wrote about this story at the time, after analysing the video evidence, and concluded that the schoolboys were being unfairly maligned.
Being rational, kind, and fair online
John Connors, Aidan Comerford, Declan Breathnach, and the writers at the Day, CNN, and the Washington Post are good people.
They sincerely believed that they were justified in making these serious allegations. They were encouraged to think this by the increasingly hostile nature of some online dialogue in recent years.
Indeed, they saw themselves as either furthering the cause of justice by defending other people, or in the case of the Covington students by reporting on current events to a deadline.
I recently wrote about why and how we should be rational, kind, and fair online.
We should robustly criticise harmful ideas using reason and evidence, while being respectful to the people who hold them.
We should remember that online debates can magnify misunderstandings and intensify hostility, when compared to real-life conversations.
I hope that these recent apologies by these good people will help to pave the way towards more constructive dialogue online and elsewhere.