Dafamation on Twitter is commonly referred to as Twibel and if a tweet is made and read and causes damage to a persons reputation then they may be able to pursue a claim for libel.
The more followers that the tweeter has, the more likely any tweet could cause damage to a reputation, particularly if it is then retweeted by others.
A Twibel case was taken by Lord McAlpine against Sally Bercow, the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, that was made in 2012 after a BBC Newsnight report that linked an unnamed Conservative politician to historic child sex claims. Sally Bercow then tweeted a reference to Lord McAlpine.
“Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.”
The tweet was alleged by Lord McAlpine to be defamatory and falsely implicate him as a paedophile.
The allegations in the Newsnight report were proven to be unfounded and the BBC paid Lord McAlpine £185,000 in damages, however, action was then taken against those who had repeated the claim through Twitter.
Mr Justice Tugendhat ruled that a reasonable reader would have linked Lord McAlpine to the Newsnight report:
“The reasonable reader would understand the words ‘innocent face’ as being insincere and ironical. There is no sensible reason for including those words in the tweet if they are to be taken as meaning that the defendant simply wants to know the answer to a factual question,”
It was found that Sally Bercow’s tweet was seriously defamatory and that she paid damages and apologised in court.
The result of the case was that the same principles that govern defamation within newspapers and other publications apply to bloggers and social media users and that it does not have to be proven that a normal reader would understand a certain meaning as long as enough followers would have understood the meaning.
The facts, parties, number of followers, seriousness of the defamation and the background to the tweet all affect the likelihood of a twibel case of succeeding.
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