Social media and libel

Using social media - such as social networking sites Facebook and Twitter - can be a great way to interact and communicate with others. But it's worth remembering that we're potentially sharing our thoughts and views with the whole world.

Even if you've secured your account so that only a select few can view it, there's always a risk that something you share could be reposted elsewhere.

And if what you share on social media sites is 'defamatory' (meaning that it could be damaging to someone's reputation), then you could land yourself in hot water, legally speaking…

Think before you post

Tweet saying 'WHAT'S MY LIBEL?'

Print: Social media and libel

Consider the following scenario and think about the possible consequences.

You're watching a TV show and a famous guest is being really obnoxious. You grab your phone and tweet some very cutting remarks about that person.

In the eyes of the law, you're allowed to express honestly-held opinions. However, if your comments go beyond cutting remarks and become serious allegations, then you could face legal repercussions - especially if what you are saying is based on unfounded claims.

The legal viewpoint

An online comment, such as a tweet, is potentially libellous in England and Wales if it damages someone's reputation "in the estimation of right-thinking members of society". It can do this by exposing them to "hatred, ridicule or contempt".

It is a civil offence (rather than a criminal one) so you won't go to prison, but you could end up with a large damages bill. These rules also apply to a 'retweet' - which is when you share or forward someone else's message on Twitter.

You may not have made the original allegation, but retweeting it could be seen as an endorsement. You could be accused of making a defamatory statement, and you could be sued.

You can also be sued even if you do not name a person in a defamatory statement. Basically, if the person you are talking about can be identified from what you have said, then you can be sued.

Scotland has a different legal system to England and Wales, but the same principles broadly apply when it comes to defamation.

Word of warning

In a court of law it would be down to you to prove that what you've said is true or to use one of the other defences to defamation, such as truth (ie what you can prove to be true) and honest opinion.

And don't think that if you delete a defamatory post then you can't be sued - you can. The length of time it is visible could affect the amount of damages you would have to pay, but just because you've deleted it doesn't mean others haven't already reposted it. Once it's out there, you can't always take it back.

Any material published in the UK - including online content - is subject to defamation, privacy and contempt laws and could even be a racism or terrorism offence.

So if you're a national newspaper editor, a bedroom blogger or just a quick-fire tweeter, you do need to think before you post. The only way to be completely safe is to avoid posting gossip unless you know for a fact that it is true.

Glossary

Libellous Defamatory comment ('defamatory' means damaging to someone's reputation) in 'permanent' form, ie written or broadcast.

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