When In Doubt, Don’t Tweet It Out

by Bryan Tuk

How Libel Law Has Caught up with Twitter

These days, one can get in trouble with a single hashtag.  It is no secret that Twitter and other social media platforms are inundated with the lowest kind of discourse and outright hostile and malicious statements.  Though defamation law is hundreds of years old, it continues to evolve.  You can defame someone with a simple retweet and a hashtag.  Despite its seemingly superficial limitations, Twitter is an incredibly powerful publishing tool when in the wrong hands that can cause a lot of havoc.

We need to look no further than 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to see how a single tweet can ignite the entire media complex (and news consumers around the world) into an instant firestorm of amplified outrage, commentary, and in a lot of cases, sheer ignorance.

Some recent notable litigation over allegedly libelous tweets include:

Actor James Woods just filed a defamation lawsuit alleging $10 Million in damages in California state court against Twitter user @abelisted who tweeted that the actor was “a cocaine addict.”

Musician Courtney Love’s misguided use of Twitter has resulted in multiple suits being filed against her by various parties, resulting in settlements of hundreds of thousands of dollars over the years.

Singer Ciara filed a lawsuit against rapper and performer Future, alleging $15 Million in damages over tweets that Future published about Ciara surrounding the break-up of their marriage.

You don’t need to be a public figure or in the entertainment industry to end up on the wrong side of a defamation lawsuit. From your smartphone or desktop, you can publish short commentary about any person or thing to the entire world.  As of Q1 2017, Twitter claims 328,000,000 active users.

That’s a lot of potential users generating a lot of content.  Tweets can also reach a non-Twitter audience via television and more traditional online news reporting.  Look no further than the “Mean Tweets” segment on the late night TV show Jimmy Kimmel Live! And you’ll quickly see what I mean.

So what is libel, anyway?  Simply stated, libel is a defamatory statement published in writing. The form of the writing is immaterial – Twitter certainly qualifies as a written publishing platform that can deliver a libelous statement.  A defamatory statement is a false statement of fact that exposes a person to hatred, ridicule or contempt, causes him or her to be shunned or injures his or her business.  Here is where the cyber world and real world intersect: statements made on Twitter can incite the public to threaten or actual harm to a person in the real world.

It is important to note that statements of opinion are not statements of fact.  In other words, a statement that “Mr. X is a thief” could be defamatory, but a statement of “I think Mr. X is a thief” might not be defamatory, based on the circumstances.  You should not automatically assume, however, that simply labeling a statement as “your opinion” makes it so.

Different legal standards apply to private citizens and public figures.  Generally, more types of statements could be construed as defamatory when made against a private citizen than a public official.  In other words, a politician or movie star has less legal protection than a private person does in this area of the law.  It’s important to note also that one can defame a company or business by publishing a libelous or defamatory statement about that company’s goods or services.  This is called trade libel.

In Pennsylvania, a cause of action for defamation must be asserted within one year of its occurrence.  This is an unusually short statute of limitations.

If you believe that someone has made a libelous statement about you on any social media platform, contact your legal counsel immediately.   Many social media platforms, including Twitter, may opt to take down the alleged defamatory statements if your counsel can be persuasive.

If you are a novice at Twitter, here are Tuk’s Rules of Thumb:

1. Use Twitter to praise colleagues, business partners, sponsors, and fans.  Stay positive!

2. Think very carefully before making a negative statement about any person or company on Twitter, even if it’s 100% true.  It can take years and tens of thousands of dollars to resolve a Twitter Libel case – or any defamation case for that matter.

3. When in doubt, don’t tweet it out.

Related Articles