Twibel – Social networking, Twitter and defamation

Twitter is a fantastically simple website. You have 140 characters to say what you want, about anything or anyone you want, before an almost infinite audience. As an outlet for passions such as sport, politics, fashion and general comment it is unparalleled.

However, its instantaneous nature and limited scope for providing context mean that it is fantastically easy to cause offence or make hasty, ill-judged comments. For example, just earlier this month a Labour MP got in trouble for asking the loaded question of: "If China is so great, why did Jeremy Hunt's wife come to England?"

With millions of tweets being shared and read every day, Twitter has become a hive of potentially defamatory statements.

Defamation on twitter occurs when a tweet is read and reputational damage is suffered as a result. If you post a tweet that damages another's reputation, the tweet then it opens you up to a claim in libel against you.

With that in mind, users of Twitter or the internet in general may wish to view the quick guide by our media lawyers on how to safely use Twitter - and what to do if you think you have been a victim of defamation.

How do I avoid libel?

Quite simply - do not tweet (or re-tweet) a defamatory statement.

What is a defamatory statement?

A defamatory statement is one which causes serious reputational harm - and must have in fact caused real harm.

So I can tweet the truth without fear?

As long as the words are true in substance and fact you will have a defence in law. However, use caution - the burden of proving truth will be on you, the Tweeter.

Further, you will need to tell the truth in such a way that does not imply something that is not true, such as by taking words out of context. For example, a clip of Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn mentioning tragedy and Bin Laden's death in the same discussion led to many commentators, including Prime Minister David Cameron, insinuating Jeremy Corbyn had terrorist sympathies. This is despite the quote taking on a potentially wholly different meaning when heard in the context of a discussion about the War on Terror and international law.

What other defences are there in law?

Alongside truth you could also argue that the Tweet - or indeed and publication of any sort is:

    • an honest opinion


    • in the public interest


    • simply the innocent dissemination of information.


Surely re-tweeting is not defaming?

It can be. It will generally be held to be immaterial by the court whether someone has composed the tweet or simply re-tweeted it.

If reputational damage results from a tweet or re-tweet then a claimant may pursue a claim for online libel.

I have not got many followers or I protect my tweets?

This will not necessarily assist you. While the Court may strike out a claim if the defamatory tweet has been shown to have only been read by a small number of people, you can still defame someone even if you only send the information to a small number of people.

For example, former cricketer Chris Cairns was able to make a claim against a defamatory tweet that was only sent to around 100 people. When the Court of Appeal upheld the decision and the damages of £90,000 it noted the potential of tweets to 'go viral' and quickly reach a wide audience as part of its decision making.

What to do if I am defamed on Twitter?

Firstly, preserve the evidence of the tweet or tweets. The offending tweeter may delete the tweet, so always take screenshots and save or print the evidence.

Secondly, it is best to take the high ground and pursue the matter through private and legal channels rather than engage in a public argument. Public arguments may worsen the effect of any libel and undermine your future claims.

Thirdly, you should make a note of anyone who references the tweet to you as evidence of the fact that the tweet has been read and has had an effect on your reputation.

Fourthly, seek legal advice.

How can Saunders Law help?

Our expert team of media law solicitors and defamation lawyers, headed by James Saunders and Matthew Purcell, can be your frontline defence against any defamatory statements made against you or your business. We will meet with you in confidence to plan the best way to limit any effects that defamatory statements may have. This could include seeking the removal of the offending publication, an apology or a clarification and / or damages.

Alternatively, if you are an individual or organisation that wants to dive in to social media, our media lawyers can help you make the right decisions about what to safely publish.

As a firm that specialises in litigation, we are ready to pursue relentlessly through the civil courts any and all defamation made against you or your business, in a response and cost-effective way. Feel free to contact us on 0207 632 4300 for an initial, no obligation consultation.


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