Defamation Law Update: Libellous tweets can cause serious harm to reputation
Libellous tweets can cause serious harm to reputation.
The so called ‘trolls’ of the internet have been a hot topic of debate in the internet age and none more so than self-proclaimed ‘rent-a-gob,’ Daily Mail columnist, Katie Hopkins. But this month, Hopkins arguably had her comeuppance when she was ordered in the High Court to pay damages of £24,000 to celebrity food blogger and political writer, Jack Monroe, for libellous tweets.
Is it so hard to say sorry?
The tweets in question suggested that Monroe, from a military family, supported the vandalisation of a War Memorial in London at a political march in May 2015. Although Hopkins had in fact mistaken Monroe for another political writer, the then Sun journalist failed to issue an immediate apology when requested by Monroe, who also asked for £5,000 in compensation. The judge, Warby J, found the tweets were defamatory and met the requirements of the Defamation Act 2013 for serious harm to an individual’s reputation, both of which were disputed by Hopkins.
Defamation Act 2013: The ‘serious harm’ requirement
The additional ‘serious harm’ requirement for libel actions was criticised in the first few months of the Act coming into force, with suggestions that it set the bar too high for successfully bringing genuine claims. And whilst High Court decisions have since reduced the bar for both businesses and individuals, the impact of a tweet under the new law had not been properly considered until now. Hopkins’ original tweet which caused the most damage was not deleted by her until 2 hours and 25 minutes later, and the judge estimated that her tweets had reached an audience of around 120,000 people with extensive re-tweeting taking place too. Whilst commenting that Monroe may not have proved her reputation had suffered gravely, he nevertheless decided the tweets had a tendency to cause harm to Monroe’s reputation in the eyes of third parties, of a kind that would be serious for her.
Twitter: no longer the ‘wild west’
Warby J’s ruling makes it clear that in the right circumstances, an individual can suffer serious harm to reputation in relation to ‘transient’ posts on Twitter and any other social media. However, this is by no means handing a loaded gun to the over sensitive. Warby J highlighted that it was not the period of time for which the tweets were publicly available, rather the level of exposure. As such, amongst other things, the judge accepted an approximation of the number of views and impressions the tweets had received to quantify the degree of reputational harm. Doing so ensured the floodgates were kept closed to frivolous accusations.
Finally, the judge noted that stubbornness played a significant role in this case and that an apology at the time of the offending tweet would have had a neutralising effect and saved a great deal of legal expense.
At the time of writing, Hopkins has been reported in the press as gearing up to appeal the decision on the basis that no actual evidence of harm or that anyone believed her tweets was produced in court. However, pending any appeal decision, this ruling sends a clear message that Twitter is not a ‘wild west’ where anything goes. In reality, social media dwellers should think before they tweet or they could end up causing serious harm to an individual’s reputation. In the case of tweets or posts about a business, the same warning applies, although in these cases ‘serious financial loss’ must be suffered to surmount the serious harm threshold.
Bringing a claim for defamation in a post-Hopkins UK
Arguably, the decision in Hopkins has made it easier to bring a claim for defamation in the context of social media due to Warby J setting a relatively low bar for proving serious harm. But whilst each case will always depend on its specific facts in this area of the law, Hopkins underlines the high value of an apology for the purposes of serious harm in all cases. Defendants, whether they be individuals or businesses, can extinguish serious harm and therefore a claim by making an apology early on in proceedings; and claimants can use that ‘incentive’ to their advantage when seeking a vindication which an apology would give.
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The content of this page is a summary of the law in force at the present time and is not exhaustive, nor does it contain definitive advice. Specialist legal advice should be sought in relation to any queries that may arise.
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