Should You Shut The F*ck Up On Twitter?

Shouting your mouth off on social media can come back and bite you on the ass, warns Paula Lyne.

6,000 new tweets: that’s how many are shared with the world every second, which adds up to a whopping 500m posts every single day, before you even consider Instagram, Snapchat and Facebook. But what happens when one of those posts contains inaccurate or defamatory comments? Nope, you can’t just brush it off as ‘I didn’t really mean it because I said it on the internet’ because increasingly, what you say on social media has repercussions. So is it maybe time to reign ourselves in?

Take Lena Dunham. Taking to Instagram earlier this year, she blasted Spanish fashion magazine Tentaciones for using “mad Photoshop” on their cover image of her. At first, no-one batted an eyelid. It seemed just another case of a publication over-using image manipulation tools to make a celebrity’s body look more appealing. Nothing new.

Except, in this case, it wasn’t another airbrushing controversy. Within 24 hours of Lena’s post going live, Tentaciones responded via their website to make it clear that they had made no changes to the original photo except to crop it slightly – it was a shot bought from a photographer, and no edits had been applied on their end. Lena profusely apologised for her post and praised Tentaciones for “being so good natured about my request for accuracy,” but the damage was done.

In this case, the magazine took Lena’s inaccurate comments on the chin – they even offered her a free subscription – but they could have pressed charges for defamation and damage to their reputation. And taking into account just how far-reaching Lena’s original post was, Tentaciones’ legal team would have had a very strong case. With 4.7m followers on Instagram, Lena has a fanbase roughly one thousand times larger than that of the Spanish magazine (at last count they had 4,172 followers, FYI), meaning her criticism of their work made waves all over the globe.

It’s not just well-known faces like Lena that need to worry about getting too mouthy on Instagram or Twitter, though. As was made clear during the late Lord McAlpine’s lawsuit against 20 Twitter users who he alleged defamed him online in 2012, a user only needs to have 500 or more followers on social media to be considered ‘high profile’ in the eyes of the law.

Whether you’re the author of potentially defamatory comments online or someone who is simply joining in the conversation by retweeting or replying to them, you could find yourself in legal hot water more easily than you might think. “People aren’t considering the impact of what they’re saying before it goes online,” says Sinéad Keavey, a partner in the Litigation and Dispute Resolution department of law firm William Fry. “Twitter in particular is a conversational tool and people approach it with such ease that they really don’t think about the implications of what they’re writing.”

Sinéad emphasises that a tweet or Instagram post containing inaccurate or libellous statements carries just as much weight in a legal sense as a newspaper article or TV broadcast would. “The rules of the law in relation to defamatory comments made online are the same as they would be for any of the mainstream media,” she warns. “All of the same rules apply.”

The danger in the case of social media, of course, is that once a post is live, it’s live. Adele admitted last year that she had employed two social media managers to ‘sign off’ on her tweets after she posted one drunk tweet too many, but us non-celebs don’t have that luxury. “There’s no editor or lawyer pressing pause on content before publication as there would be with traditional media,” says Sinead. “Bloggers and tweeters should be reminded that they are publishers in the eyes of the law and will essentially be held to the same law that applies to traditional publishers.”

So is it time to shut our mouths and stop using social media for anything beyond Game Of Thrones analysis and the odd holiday selfie? “At the very least I’d advise people to start being more cautious and careful,” advises Sinéad. “If you can back up your comments and they’re true, that’s fine. If you’re giving an opinion, remember that the opinion must be honestly held and anchored in fact. Truth is the complete defence so take the time to get it right.” Wise words.

This article first appeared in STELLAR’s August issue. Our March issue on shelves now!

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