27 Feb 2013

How your stupidity can screw you on Twitter

I will forsake the stupidity of what passes for life on a certain small Rock – like a criminal guilty of committing actual bodily harm being fined the equivalent of 2 hours salary – and step out to enlightening readers on what is the law regarding Twitter and tweeting, on a larger Rock.

Twitter, like any other published source, is subject to punishment by the law regarding libel (defamation by written words; slander is defamation by spoken words)… on the other hand, defences in law for these are also applicable.

The law concerning Twitter is clear - if you make a defamatory allegation about someone you can be sued for libel. It is the same as publishing a false and damaging report in a newspaper.


    • A tweet is potentially libellous in England and Wales if it damages someone's reputation "in the estimation of right thinking members of society". It can do this by exposing them to "hatred, ridicule or contempt". It is a civil offence so you won't be jailed but you could end up with a large damages bill. The rules also apply to re-tweets.

In simple terms, if you’re in doubt that your tweet is ‘potentially libellous’, then don’t post it.

    • You are liable under the same rules as media organisations… if you publish a name of a minor, or that of a rape victim, or anything that can lead to identification, for example, you’re liable.

Under The Sexual Offences (Amendment) Act 1992, “media organisations are automatically banned from naming the victim of sexual assaults. The same rules apply to social media users”.

    • Social media users face prosecution if breaking the terms of a court injunction… for example, looking up a defendant’s details on the internet while in a jury, or communicating with the defendant. Even publishing details which are NOT TRUE, or NOT PROVEN TRUE can be contempt of the court if publishing details were banned by the judge.

Case in point, “breaking the terms of a court injunction banning the identification of Venables and Thompson. The terms of the order mean that if a picture claims to be of Venables or Thompson, even if it is not actually them, there will be a breach of the order”. There is a ban on publishing anything revealing the identity of Jon Venables or Robert Thompson, who were found guilty of murder of James Bulger.

The main aim of contempt rules is to ensure fair trials by limiting juries' exposure to information that might be prejudicial. Jurors are meant to make up their minds on the evidence presented to them in court, not what they have seen in the media.

    • “Aggravating factors, such as racism and prejudice against religion, disability and sexual orientation” along with threats “form part of a campaign of harassment specifically targeting an individual within the meaning of the Protection from Harassment Act 1997” can be prosecuted.

A joker who tweeted about blowing up an airport was prosecuted but eventually found not guilty because the threat was not ‘serious’. However, keep in mind that the prosecution would have cost him damage to his reputation, financial and time costs as well.


“The best defence is if you can prove the contents of the tweet are true.

You could also claim it was "fair comment" - your honestly held opinion on established facts. Another possible defence is to claim you were covered by privilege, if it was something said in Parliament or in court, or that it was an example of "innocent dissemination" - you did not know you had published the comment (it might have been an automatic system).

The only way to be completely safe is to avoid tweeting gossip unless you know for a fact that it is true.”