Everyone’s tweeting on Twitter so how much trouble could you really get into in just 140 characters? It depends on how succinct you can be and how far you can reach. As an attorney, the best way to advise a corporate clients small business or an individual is to think before you tweet.
Many people are successfully using the social platform to promote a business or product, even themselves. Some tweeps, as the members are often called, have tens of thousands of followers, while celebs like Demi Moore have over three-million followers. The reach is far and once you place a sentence into the Twitterverse it can die on the vine or go viral, so let’s explore its implications in light of statements which may disparage someone’s reputation.
The tort of defamation is determined differently by each state but they each consist of basic elements:
- publication of a statement to at least one other person other than the person defamed;
- a false statement of fact (although opinion and hyperbole are excluded);
- that it is clearly about the person who is defamed with the intention of harming his/her reputation; and
- if the person is a public figure than actual malice must be proven. (BTW – you should check out the old 1981 Paul Newman flick, “Absence of Malice.” It’s a great movie and gives a more than adequate explanation of defamation and libel v. slander. Just think: libel=print and slander=verbal)
Lawyers know that you can name anyone in a lawsuit but whether the complaint sticks or not is another question. Someone who believes they are defamed might choose to sue the person writing the offensive tweet, along with Twitter itself. However, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, 47 U.S.C. 230, provides immunity to the content provider that is not an actual publisher or editor (meaning they have no control over the content), so there go the deep pockets.
A handful of these suits have popped up across the country. There was one filed earlier this year against musician/actress Courtney Love and another involving an Illinois woman who only had 20 followers and tweeted a complaint about mold in her apartment. The mold suit was dismissed. The point is that at some point in the near future, someone will defame another person purposefully and their 140 characters will come back to haunt them and this might set a new standard for Twitter defamation. Therefore, the golden rule of Twitterville should now be “tweeple, beware and think before you type!”