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Last updated: November 21, 2012 11:13 pm
It only takes one click. Twitter users are learning that publishing libel – and being sued for it – has never been easier.
Lord McAlpine, the former Conservative party treasurer, this week gave the world a dramatic lesson in libel law after he was falsely accused of child abuse by users of the social media site.
“It’s unprecedented,” said Niri Shan, head of media law at Taylor Wessing. “This is the first time I’ve seen a claimant so aggressively pursue people on Twitter, and also ordinary members of the public, not just more influential tweeters who have huge followings.”
Earlier this month, thousands of Twitter users linked Lord McAlpine to a BBC story that falsely alleged a “senior Thatcher-era Tory” was a paedophile who preyed on boys in a north Wales care home.
Those Tweeters are now being asked to pay up – or face legal action.
Lord McAlpine and his lawyers are adopting a two-pronged approach. Twitter users with fewer than 500 followers have been invited to come forward and make a fixed donation – rumoured to be just £5 – to Lord McAlpine’s charity of choice, BBC Children In Need.
Those with more than 500 followers have also been invited to come forward – but to agree an out-of-court settlement for a larger amount. Libel lawyers say these people could expect to pay as much as £35,000 if they went to court, depending on factors including the number of their followers, and their position, and the grand total of damages to be received.
While unlawful defamation can be published in all sorts of formats – from shouting in public to sending an email – social media pose extra risks.
What makes Twitter a particularly dangerous place to post defamatory information is that anyone can rapidly reach a huge audience if their post “goes viral” and is repeatedly reposted by other users.
“People tend to use Twitter like gossip in the pub,” says Chris Hutchings, media partner at Hamlins, the law firm. “Whereas the reality is that it has the power to spread very serious allegations virally.”
Many users have been shocked to discover they can get into trouble not only for posting libellous information, but also for retweeting – reposting someone else’s tweet. Retweeting, which can be done with a single click, amounts to a fresh publication of the libel under UK law.
Lawyers for McAlpine are reported to have identified 1,000 original libellous tweets and 9,000 retweets.
Among the defamatory tweets were ones that did not mention McAlpine by name, but linked to material that did. Contrary to popular perceptions, potentially this too may amount to libel.
The McAlpine scandal will not result in any changes of the law when it comes to libel and social networks, says Mr Shan, of Taylor Wessing. “But what it might do is result in changes to people’s behaviour,” he says, “at least in the short term as people have short memories.”
HOW TWITTER HAS BEEN CAUGHT UP IN ONLINE WAR OF WORDS
Liam Stacey, 21, a Swansea University student, was jailed for 56 days in March after admitting posting racially offensive comments on Twitter about the Bolton Wanderers footballer Fabrice Muamba, who collapsed from a cardiac arrest during an FA Cup tie at Tottenham Hotspur.
A district judge in Swansea called the comments “vile and abhorrent”.
Mr Stacey was arrested after his comments were reported by other users. He later told police that he had been drunk when he made the comments.
David Cameron told MPs after the riots in August last year that the government was looking at banning the use of social networking sites by people thought to be plotting criminal activity.
“Everyone watching these horrific actions will be struck by how they were organised via social media,” he said.
But Alexander Macgillivray, Twitter’s general counsel, told MPs: “We have not found, because our service is public, that it’s a good tool for organising criminal activity.”
One Facebook user was jailed for four years for using the site to incite violence.
The New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns, was awarded £90,000 damages by the High Court after suing for libel over a tweet made in 2010 by Lalit Modi, the former chairman and commissioner of the Indian Premier League, over an accusation of match-fixing.
The judge said while the tweet was received by few followers, that “does not mean damages should be reduced to trivial amounts”.
Lawyers said it sent a sign that false statements on social media would be treated just as seriously as those using traditional media.
Twitter was caught in the row over the Ryan Giggs super-injunction – a legal gagging order blocking the media from reporting the details of a story and even the existence of the injunction. Members of the social media network named the Manchester United footballer, who tried to prevent stories concerning an alleged affair.
John Hemming, a Liberal Democrat MP, identified Mr Giggs in parliament, saying: “With about 75,000 people having named Ryan Giggs on Twitter it is impractical to imprison them all.”
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