Defamation on Twitter

The power to publish is no longer the preserve of a select few.

Social media websites such as Twitter and Facebook have now extended this privilege to anyone with an Internet connection and something to say.

Social media giants

The blogosphere and Twitter in particular have played a significant role in empowering everyday individuals to publish. Despite limiting users to a 140 characters of text, Twitter is creating headaches for lawmakers, media and celebrities alike.

This unprecedented volume of unregulated content has made Internet defamation suits become increasingly common. The instantaneous reach and global scope of the Internet is such that the damage from social media defamation can be higher, viral and more potent than traditional media. (Mukherjee 2011)

Barrister and media specialist at UK law firm Addleshaw Goddard, Korieh Duodu, was quoted by The Guardian as saying that the increase in defamation cases is due to the rising volume of material on blogging and social networking sites remaining unchecked. “So much material on the Internet is now written by non-professionals without any of the fact-checking that should take place within traditional media organisations,” Duodu said.

“Social media tools have over a billion users worldwide and are growing rapidly in popularity. Nevertheless, they can present a huge problem for individuals and corporates trying to protect their reputations from harmful user-generated content.”

“There is certainly a need for greater accountability of the providers of user-generated content; a need to tighten the regulatory framework within which they operate.” (Dowell 2011)

In a recent UK High Court case Chris Cairns, a former New Zealand international cricketer, was successful in claiming defamation against Lalit Modi, former Chairman of the Indian Premier League (IPL), over claims on Twitter by Mr. Modi that Cairns was involved in match-fixing.

New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns in action against England.

At the time of his dismissal, the then chairman of the IPL commented on Twitter that Cairns’ removal came as the result of a “past record in match-fixing.” In a later response to a cricket journalist working for Cricinfo, Modi said: “We have removed him from the list for alleged allegations as we have zero tolerance for this kind of stuff”. (Warchus 2012)

It is one of the most high profile defamation cases recent years involving social media and sport. The decision is a clear illustration of the fact that ill-judged tweets (or any other comments in a social media context) can just as easily lead to damages for defamation as comments in traditional forms of print media.

As a result, many celebrities are now using injunctions to prevent stories gaining traction over the nexus of social media websites. The use of anonymity orders in privacy claims has allowed high profile individuals to stop potentially damaging stories from being published. This can prevent the need for individuals to sue for defamation after the event – but these injunctions are not always effective.

In May 2011, over 75,000 Twitter users tested British privacy laws by breaking a High Court gagging order obtained by English footballer Ryan Giggs to suppress the details of his alleged affair with glamour model Imogen Thomas.

The Guardian’s headline on 14 May 2011

John Hemming, a Liberal MP who has campaigned for press freedom, then disclosed details of the affair under parliamentary privilege, saying it was “obviously impractical” to imprison everyone who had breached the super-injunction.

The release of Giggs’ name was seen as a victory for the media over celebrities and their lawyers after an increasingly farcical game of cat and mouse that ultimately led to Prime Minister David Cameron promising a review of Britain’s privacy laws. “It is rather unsustainable, this situation, where newspapers can’t print something that everyone else is clearly talking about” said Cameron.

Lawyer Roderick Dadak of media firm Lewis Silkin said the case showed how difficult it was to regulate online gossip: “It has drawn the attention of all, the judiciary and parliament, to the fact that the Internet is pretty much uncontrollable,” Dadak told Reuters. “Anyone can post whatever they want out of the jurisdiction and there is nothing you can do about it,” he added. (Weir 2011)

In response to calls for tighter regulation of social networks, Twitter has advocated a heavy bias towards free speech, insisting: “the tweets must flow”.

“We strive not to remove Tweets on the basis of their content,” a Twitter spokesperson said. (Williams 2011)

The issue of paid comments by celebrities using blogs and social media is also becoming more common. The ABC television program ‘Media Watch’ has reported that celebrities can now command thousands of dollars for a single tweet.

Another problem that further complicates the policing of comments made on Twitter is who to sue. A Melbourne man, Joshua Meggitt, recently sued Twitter for defamation after ABC personality and author Marieke Hardy wrongly accused him of being the author of a hate blog.

The controversy began when Hardy denounced Meggitt as a hate blogger who had been stalking her for years. Hardy wrote on her Twitter account: “I name and shame my ‘anonymous’ Internet bully. Liberating business! Join me.” She then linked to a post on her blog wrongly identifying Mr. Meggitt.

Marieke Hardy

Meggitt threatened Hardy with defamation action in 2011 after she had made the allegations on her Twitter account. Fairfax Media outlets reported that Hardy later settled out of court for $15,000.

Mr. Meggitt’s lawyer Scott Gibson told Fairfax Media his client was now seeking damages from the social media company: “Twitter are a publisher, and at law anyone involved in the publication can be sued …
We’re suing for the retweets and the original tweet – and many of the retweets and comments are far worse.” (Griffin 2012)

Thus we see yet another example of the complications presented by social media concerning the increased power of publication and danger of defamation.

As the power to publish becomes increasingly dispersed, the governance and regulation of social media such as Twitter is becoming much hazier.

Traditional publishers and media professionals are legally bound by the same rules and restraints, yet regulation is becoming increasingly difficult due to a number of factors. When posting online, people must now carefully consider what, where, when, how and to whom they are publishing material.

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2 comments

  1. I think the problem with the internet and social media is that much of the material online does go relatively unchecked and this lulls people into this false sense that they can post whatever they like with little to no concequences. The law is slowly catching up, as we have seen with the recent imprisonment of several abusive trollers in the UK.

    I follow this blog called Journlaw, there’s a great article called ‘Social Media Risks for Journalists’, i highly recommend checking it out 🙂

    http://journlaw.com/2012/10/17/social-media-legal-risks-for-journalists-the-journlaw-com-guide-to-staying-safe-in-the-web-2-0-era/

  2. The in-text citations are an added touch, which alas too few bloggers these days care to provide…

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