Twibel. How Twitter could cost you a fortune.

After nearly five years and with 200 million users we’ve just had the first high-profile Twibel (Twitter-Libel) activity reported http://bit.ly/twibel. What might previously have been a disagreement in private or on the phone can now turn into public and expensive litigation.

So what? That’s what celebs do sometimes, eh? Well, no. It could be you, or your company,or your employees staring down the barrel of a major payout.

Princeton University’s search lexicon ‘wordnetweb’ defines libel as ‘a false and malicious publication printed for the purpose of defaming a living person’ which seems in line with my recollection of the BBC legal training I had as a journalist 20 years ago.

How much will your next tweet cost you?

Social media now enables the ‘citizen journalist’ – that’s you and me – to publish whenever we want, whatever we want, without the oversight of an editor. There are no checks, no legal protection and the risk of being sued is the same that any media outlet faces. The difference is that most media owners employ people trained to spot potential problems before they’re published.

The age of the smartphone means that we can react instantly to something we see and make a comment immediately. Those 140 characters bashed out on a train, in a cafe or during a meeting in response to something we’ve just thought about could come back and bite you. So be careful before you hit ‘Send’.

And, trawling my memory of that legal training, I’m sure that the individual taking the action can choose to pursue the author and/or the media owner and/or the organisation the author represents. Presumably that might include your employer if you are using a company Twitter account or maybe if you’re tweeting in work hours? Be interesting to hear a legal perspective on that one.

So, think before you tweet. And remember that what happens on Twitter stays in cyberspace. For life. Deleting the tweet after it has been sent will not remove any liability as the search engines and scraping tools may well have captured your comments and stored it away.

Any advice?
1. Think before you hit ‘Send’. Take a break and leave it five minutes before you press the ‘publish and be damned’ button.
2. Don’t say anything that you wouldn’t be happy to say to the company lawyer if he/she was sat next to you as you typed. It might make your tweets a little less fruity, but it might just save your job – or the family home.
3. If you’re a company executive – get some protocols in place NOW in the business and use this case as a wake-up call to get your social media strategy under way.
4. Get some training and read up on the laws of libel – ignorance of the law is not a defence!

What do you do at the moment before you hit ‘Send’? Do you re-read and think about it – or just go for it? I would be keen to hear your thoughts…

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About Al Clarke – I am a marketing and communications specialist who has worked in the motor industry at board level since 1997. I have held senior positions in global brands such as Ferrari and the BBC including a decade working as a journalist.I am a member of the Institute of Directors, the Public Relations Consultants Association, an expert member of the digital community Smart Insights and Life President of the Motor Industry Public Affairs Association.I speak regularly in the field of marketing communications to businesses and the media with particular reference to digital media. Find me on Twitter @alclarkeltd and LinkedIn.

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Comments 4

  1. I’m sure this is a timely warning … but not one which will be heeded by all, judging by the only comment left at the bottom of that Daily Mail article, which ignores the substance of the article and refers only to Courteney Love’s personal appearance. It’s also a worry that those “freedom of expression” groups completely miss the point in warning that the law is being used to ‘stifle online communication through unsuited legislation’. It’s not. The law is simply being used to prevent unfettered lies.

  2. I completely agree with the suggestion that the libel laws need to be revisited and it would be good to have a short version to refer to. However it does worry me that here is another reason why businesses will be even less transparent. It seems to me that this legislation just means that vast teams of lawyers will be even more busy monitoring social media in addition to every utterance that corporates make. More incentive for businesses to make the usual ‘no comment’.

  3. Post
    Author

    And now it has started in the UK. Since I wrote the blog last week, we now have news of the UK’s first Twibel. Follow this link it takes you to a report from Media Digest (a very useful free weekly aggregator of information) – visit http://bit.ly/g2JIQI

    As a marketing advisor I have seen first-hand the parallel world of communication in corporate life, and it looks like this:

    World 1 – Businesses sign off every press release, dot every ‘i’ and cross every ‘t’ in brochures, letters and communication materials. Drafts and re-drafts are common until everyone is happy. Meetings are held where strategies emerge to ensure brand consistency and tone of voice. Brand guidelines and communication protocols = control.

    World 2 – A free-for-all where staff tweet, blog, and have an open dialogue on social networks. Employees tell the world about products, issues and services often before the planned corporate releases commenting on business and customer activity and in many cases in a style that does not resemble their employers’ tone = anarchy

    World 1 and World 2 are going on simultaneously in many businesses right now.

    So, Diana, you’re absolutely right – there will be (expensive and chargeable) late nights in Legal Chambers and probably many new hires in the legal profession – until businesses get to grips with the basic challenge, which is: managing the issue.

    How many of the main board directors in a business can explain what social media is? Very few. And how many know what is happening around their brand in social media? Even less.

    Martin Derrick makes the point that we need protection of both brand and individual against a tide of untruths – I agree.

    But, managers need to manage and businesses can do a lot to avoid the risks and capitalise on the opportunities by recognising what’s happening and developing a clear and measurable plan for social media.

    Social media is not rocket science. After 25 years in business, I’ve made the time and managed to grasp it and harness the benefits whilst recognising the risks.

    The biggest challenge is time. Few leaders in business take the time to learn and engage with social media – but until they do, the risks are stacking up.

    You might be interested to follow @socialmedialaw1 for a legal view, and Media Digest @mediadigestUK who track media news and keep you up to date. (note I have no business interest in either party – I just follow their updates)

    If you want to explore how your business can tackle the issues – get in touch!

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