Wednesday 22 November 2017

Think before you tweet or you could end up in court

Chrissie Russell

Tweeters, bloggers and Facebook fans beware of what you share. To paraphrase a slogan from a time before broadband -- careless talk online costs lawsuits. The news this week that online defamation cases doubled in the UK last year should give all internet users pause for thought.

The information superhighway means anyone can be a journalist and get information to a large audience in just a few keystrokes -- but with that power comes responsibility -- and the risk of libel.

"Exactly the same rules apply as would for a newspaper," says Ciaran Maguire of Simon McAleese Solicitors. "Contributors need to be able to stand over what they say. Protection may be afforded if a matter of 'public interest' is being discussed, as opposed to an issue that is of interest to the public. Opinions should be supported by facts."

You may want to amuse your Twitter followers but don't forget that you're only a mouseclick away from a lawsuit.

Courtney Love found that out when she let rip a Twitter tirade on clothes designer Dawn Simorangkir. After using the social-networking site to falsely brand Simorangkir a thief and prostitute, following a row over some frocks, Love ended up settling out of court to the tune of $430,000 earlier this year.

There's yet to be a similar high-profile Twitter case in Ireland but complaints relating to defamatory posts on the internet are growing.

In 2001, Ireland had its first case of internet defamation after a sandwich maker posted the name and number of a business rival on a website offering sexual services. Last year a woman was found guilty of internet defamation at Dublin Circuit Criminal Court when she posted ads offering sex on a classifieds page on behalf of two unwitting people.

The key dangers of the internet are the immediacy, opportunity and sense of invisibility it gives users.

Psychologist Allison Keating, from Dublin's bWell Clinic, says: "Technology is now so instant it seems to have cut out some of the social norms that inhibit us.

"Face-to-face contact involves limbic resonance whereby conversation responses are influenced and measured by the non-verbal feedback of the other person. Faced with a computer screen we lose that. There's no sense of the impact what you're saying has on someone and without seeing the consequences we lose any sense of responsibility."

Believing they can't get caught prompts some people to act uncharacteristically online but those doing so should know anonymity is a veil that can be lifted.

As blogger Rosemary Port realised when a Manhattan supreme court judge ordered Google to reveal her identity after her website, Skanks of New York, inaccurately branded model Liskula Cohen a 'skank' and 'ho' in 2009.

Interestingly, Port claimed Cohen had "defamed herself" by going public. She said: "Before her suit, there were probably two hits on my website: one from me looking at it and one from her looking at it."

But it doesn't matter. "Whether you have three followers or 3,000, you can still be taken to court," says Mr Maguire. "Circulation will impact upon the level of damages awarded but the threshold for initiating a legal action is publication to at least one person other than the Plaintiff." Retweeting may also carry liability.

Of course it's important to bear in mind that defamatory cases are expensive and thus relatively rare and libels arising from Twitter and blogs only account for a tiny percentage of the 368 billion items posted on Facebook, 52 billion tweets and 330 million blogposts every year.

Still, it's probably best to think before you tweet because you never know who's reading.

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