Twitter Lawsuit Story From Britain Shows the Risks of Repeating Gossip on Social Media

This story out of the UK highlights the dangers of repeating libelous content on social media.

In the midst of an ongoing sexual abuse scandal revolving around senior figures in the media and accusations of coverups at the BBC, the news program Newsnight claimed a “senior Conservative politician” was involved in the abuse of children at an orphanage. Another program claimed to have a list of names. Soon those names leaked onto Twitter, and Lord McAlpine (a member of Margaret Thatcher’s cabinet) found himself wrongfully identified as one of the abusers. The accusation was retweeted over and over.

Lord McAlpine didn’t take this lying down. He has threatened to sue anyone who retweeted the rumour unless they make a public apology, and has extracted apologies and payment of damages from the BBC and others.

While libel laws in the UK may make going after Twitter users easier in that country, this is still a cautionary tale for users of social media. There can be serious consequences if you aren’t careful what you say or repeat online. For more on the potential pitfalls of using social media, see LAWPRO’s article on Social Media: Pitfalls to Avoid.

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Comments

  1. My off-the-cuff reaction is ‘good for him’ – and it’s a good thing he has the resources to fight back.

    My slightly more on-the-cuff reaction is to ask whether:

    (a) the topic and the tweets can in some way make available the ‘responsible journalism on a matter of public interest’ defence to defamation. I suspect the second half of the defence can be made out but not the first half. Some checking with the ‘other side’ is needed, as I understand the law on the point. The defence is available in England (where it was invented) as in Canada (where it was imported).

    (b) some kind of ‘public figure’ defence of the American kind would help defendants here. A public figure needs to be able to prove ‘malice’, in the sense at least of a reckless disregard of the truth or non-truth of the defamatory statement.