I recently had a stark reminder of the potentially costly dangers lurking on social media.
It wasn’t even something I’d posted myself on Twitter, but just a simple and stupid retweet which brought the threat of legal action rushing into my inbox the next morning.
“RETWEETING A FALSE AND DEFAMATORY TWEET” the headline of the email read.
It was then explained to me, by the subject of the tweet, that the person who posted the original information – an anonymous person – had made an allegedly “fabricated allegation”.
Having been identified as one of the handful of people who had retweeted the provocative tweet, I was then invited to “provide proof” of the material I had in effect republished through the simple click of a mouse.
“I look forward to your apology and immediate removal of such retweet” – the email ended by saying.
Of course I had no proof and nor did I wish to be sued so I hastily undid my retweet and wrote an apology to the person who had contacted me.
It was the obvious and sensible thing to do.
I have always been aware that you can be sued – and many have – for what you say on social media, and because of that I am quite careful not to put myself in the firing line.
But on this occasion my good sense deserted me, though I do recall a mental warning bell tinkling in the background at the moment I hovered over the retweet icon.
Thankfully, the aggrieved party was satisfied with my sincere apology and removal of the offending retweet, much to my relief and chagrin.
Now that the shock has worn off, I am now deeply cognisant of what I tweet and retweet, post and share online. (What a strange world we live in!) and of course what I write on this blog.
In that regard, it still amazes me what people say about, and to one another on social media , often without hiding their identity at all.
It’s very brazen and defamatory stuff (most of which would never be uttered face-to-face in the ‘real world’) and carries with it the very real threat of a costly lawsuit should the subject of derision be upset enough to take action.
Indeed, there are many examples of people who have been sued, sacked or had their reputations damaged or destroyed by the things they have tweeted, posted and retweeted on the plethora of social media platforms that now dominate daily life.
Just type in “defamation + social media” into Google and you will find plenty of good reading material.
There is of course a very obvious reason why people sue others for what they say on social media and the word is ‘viral’. (Just ask this poor woman).
Information posted on these platforms can spread like wildfire via retweets, shares and likes. This phenomenon occurs everyday when unlikely tweets and posts start ‘trending’.
This point was highlighted by a judge in the first social media defamation case in Australia to proceed to full trial in 2013. In this case, the plaintiff – a high school music teacher – was awarded $105,000 in damages and costs after a former student at the school made false allegations about her on Twitter and Facebook.
District Court Judge Michael Elkaim remarked in his March 2014 judgement of Mickle v Farley that ” when defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread”
“They are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication. I have taken that into account in the assessment of damages that I previously made,” the judge said.
This case, and many others around the world, should serve as a warning to anyone about the care one should take in how we represent ourselves online. Certainly tweeting or posting while drunk or mad with rage is not a good idea!
Even if you are rich and can afford a costly legal battle, there is also the potential damage to your reputation – just ask this famous billionaire.
Be careful what you tweet.