Ashtons Legal: When does a tweet become a twibel?

Michael Frape of Ashtons Legal.

Michael Frape of Ashtons Legal. - Credit: Archant

'Twibel' case underlines the need for every business to get to grips with social media, writes Michael Frape of Ashtons Legal.

Every business using social media should get to grips with publishing law and advertising regulations if they are to avoid reputation-damaging incidents.

The reminder follows the news that columnist Katie Hopkins was recently refused leave to appeal against a recent High Court libel verdict, where she was found to have published defamatory tweets – or what's been coined a 'twibel'.

Anyone using social media is a publisher, putting information out into the public domain.

But unlike newspapers and book publishers, most businesses don't have a good understanding of publishing law and how to avoid breaching it.

Similarly, many businesses are not considering how their social media posts may breach advertising regulations, as the boundaries between paid-for advertising and other forms of communication become more blurred.

For Katie Hopkins, the tweets she posted that were found to be defamatory implied that prominent poverty campaigner and writer Jack Monroe had defaced a war memorial, in a case of mistaken identity.

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Ms Monroe offered her the chance to apologise publicly or face legal action, but Hopkins refused.

When the case reached the High Court, the tweets were found to have caused 'serious' harm to Ms Monroe's reputation and Hopkins was ordered to pay damages of £24,000.

In addition to that and of far greater concern to Hopkins will have been being ordered to pay Ms Monroe's legal costs, which are thought to be a six-figure sum.

In deciding the case, the court had to determine whether the tweets met the requirement for harm that is set out in the Defamation Act 2013. Experts say the ruling is the most important case to date involving libel on social media.

Controlling social media content is a huge issue for business.

Staff could learn from the 26-point guide on how to use Twitter, published by the High Court as an appendix to its official ruling in the Hopkins case, which provides a summary of how the platform works.

It makes for useful reading, even for those who think themselves experts, as a reminder of who will receive postings when tweeting, re-tweeting or replying.