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As a nation, we now turn to social media as our main means of communication with the outside world. We can’t eat a mail without posting an ‘insta’ or watch a television programme without tweeting about it (#loveisland), but is the security of sitting behind a keyboard encouraging us to leave ourselves open to lawsuits?

It was published in the news yesterday that actress Rebel Wilson had won a defamation claim against several US magazines over a series of articles which she claimed ruined her career. These articles accused her of inventing her backstory to “make it in Hollywood”, including lying about her name, age, and being related to Walt Disney. The amount of damages is yet to be decided by the Judge.

Whilst this case is a few miles away from the ordinary person posting a tweet to their 200 or so followers, it has been reported that the UK actually experienced a 333% rise in social media libel cases between 2013 and 2014. I recently read about a case in Australia during which a woman took to social media to share a photo of a man she had seen taking a picture near some children – she labelled the man a ‘creep’ and claimed police were investigating. The post was shared 20,000 times and the following day came to the attention of the man himself, who immediately reported to the police. It turns out that the man was taking a selfie of himself with a Star Wars poster – to send to his own children. He was of course extremely hurt by the incident, and is investigating his legal options. I for one see posts like this on an almost daily basis, encouraging others to share the post to “spread the word”. How many of those who share these posts actually think about the accuracy of the content? Without social media, that woman may have told some friend about the so-called ‘creep’ and perhaps a few people would have heard her comments. The power of social media means that hundreds of thousands of people were viewing a post labelling an innocent father a ‘creep’ and I’m sure the comments would have used much stronger language. This woman has now opened herself up to a defamation claim.

Katie Hopkins has reportedly been ordered to pay Jack Monroe over £26,000 in relation to two tweets which suggested that the food writer approved of defacing a memorial during an anti-austerity demonstration in Whitehall. These suggestions were untrue, and extremely offensive to a woman who came from a military family. The judge found there had been “harm to [Jack Monroe’s] reputation, which was serious, albeit not ‘very serious’ or ‘grave’”. A finding of serious harm is necessary for a successful libel claim.

What does the law say?

Defamation is governed by common law and statute, the most recent being the Defamation Act 2013.  Defamation is defined as “a publication to a third party of words or matters containing an untrue imputation against the reputation of individuals, companies, or firms which serve to undermine such reputation in the eyes of right thinking members of society generally, by exposing the victim to hatred, contempt or ridicule.” Basically, something which is put out in to the public sphere which is untrue and damaging to the individual or company it relates to. The affected individual/company can then bring a claim under the tort of defamation; this can be brought under the heading of slander (the publication of defamatory words or actions in temporary form) or libel (the publication of defamatory materials in the permanent form). Defamation relies on the meaning of the words or actions in question to establish slander or libel. Defamation trials are heard without a jury unless the court orders otherwise. The judge will determine whether the words given their ordinary and natural meaning would damage the claimant's reputation. In an attempt to balance the law and to prevent freedom of expression being infringed, a new requirement was introduced in the 2013 Act: the statement must have caused or be likely to cause serious harm to the claimant’s reputation.

Section 1 of the Act 2013 creates the new requirement that a statement must have caused or would be likely to cause serious harm to the claimant's reputation.  If serious harm to the reputation of the client cannot be established then that statement is not deemed to be defamatory. Various defences are also available, ranging from truth and honest opinion, to publishing in the matter of public interest.

It is unlikely that the general social media user will post something which will reach enough people to cause someone such serious harm to the claimant’s reputation. However, the law, and the examples above, serve as a reminder to us all that we should be more cautious when posting on social media – remember to think before you Tweet!

If you have experienced any issues involving social media, please do contact us. We offer free 20 minute appointments for any new enquiries.

Safe posting!



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