Whilst I've been on Twitter for several years, I've only really began - to my continuing displeasure - to engage with the users on it recently.

Now whilst I generally find it a bit tedious to use, I persist regardless because it's a bit main-lining heroin from a bloke at the park through a dirty needle. What I mean is, there're risks that the substance you're getting isn't the real deal but on the whole, you're getting something at least resembles the news.

With that said, I witnessed an exchange between a blogger, small company and another blogger that went something like this.

@BigBrand As a respected brand, how can you work with @JoeBlogger who uses bots to boost their numbers?

-- @JaneBloggette

On the whole, I think most people would agree that that's a fairly reasonable question given that millions of bloggers work very hard to build their reputation without the use of bots.

JaneBloggette received no response from Big Brand, but she did receive a response from Joe Blogger. It looked something like this.

@JaneBloggette Please send me your email address. Our lawyers would like to send you some information.

-- @JoeBlogger

Chances are this is Joe Blogger blowing smoke so as to get Jane Bloggette to back off. Lawyers don't work that quick and as someone pointed out, they're unlikely to communicate over email and might prefer recorded delivery via courier.

It did get me thinking though; did Jane Bloggette do anything wrong? Morally, probably not. Most normal people would assume she's justifiably angry - and that may be a legal defence as you'll see futher down - but the law isn't quite so clear. In fact, she might be opening her self up to a libel case.

Now before I go much further into this, I need to point out that I'm not a lawyer (surprise surprise). You shouldn't take this post to be solid legal advice, but it is based in some small amount of research. In other words, it may be a useful guide to protecting yourself on Twitter, on your blog and on social media at large.

Additionally, this information is generally geared towards British bloggers (although it was inheritied in many commonwealth countries) and as such shouldn't be relied upon to any degree by non-Brits.

A brief history lesson

So first off, here's a brief history of libel & defamation law.

Defamation law began - at least as far as it's relevant to British bloggers - in England in the early 1600's. Way back then it was fairly common for civilians to duel in defence of their honour. We've all seen the slapping with a glove trope.

Old French sketch of a duel

Source: https://www.15min.lt/naujiena/aktualu/istorija/ldk-istorija-bajoru-dvikovos-582-379165

Dueling was also banned by Wellington during the Napoleonic era. As you can imagine it wouldn't serve the army well to have their soldiers killing each other.

Anyway, in order to reinforce these laws, individuals needed some kind of legal recourse for people who damage their reputation and/or business. And so the defamation law of England came into being.

Libel laws in the UK are some of the harshest in the developed world. The law is such that you're guilty until proven innocent; literally. The law is so harsh in the UK, that politicians, celebrities and other political figures from the USA, would sue in the UK because it was easier to silence their opponents as courts in the USA would throw out the cases.

The USA has now changed their law so that libel cases in the UK are no longer taken into account.

What libel actually means

In effect, you are defaming someone if you are seen to be damaging someone's (or a company's) reputation in such a way that their their trade is affected or damage to their reputation in the eyes of an average Joe occurs.

Using the example cited above, Jane Bloggette may have been damaging Joe Blogger's reputation and/or his trade - whether or not she was morally correct.

So how to protect yourself?

You are of course given the opportunity to defend yourself in libel cases. Here are the most common & effective defences.

You'll probably never have to defend your in court, but knowing the law might protect you from costly defence solicitors.

Truth

Truth is your best weapon against a libel case. If you can prove that what you published is absoluely true then you're in a pretty safe place. The truth will out as it were.

The statue of Veritas, Roman goddess of truth outside the Canadian supreme court

Source: http://www.all-about-ottawa.com/supreme-court-canada/dscn6977/

The statue of Veritas, Roman goddess of truth, outside the Canadian supreme court

Proving that what you said is true is usually the easiest defence in a libel case. If what you said it true, they damaged their own reputation.

The problem with our example however is that it's incredibly difficult to prove if someone is using paid-for bots to gain followers and inflate their standing on social media.

Of course, we may know as far as the signs all being there, but that's not the same a proof.

Honesty is the second best policy

The Defamation Act 2013 introduced a new defence against libel cases called honest opinion.

It states that if the accused can demonstrate the following, then they may be able to defend themself using honest opinion.

  • that the statement in question was an opinion
  • that within the statement there was an apparent basis to the opinion
  • the statement is one that an honest person could have held

In effect, if you can demonstrate that you're honestly expressing your opinion - and the language you use matters here - and that anyone else might hold that opinion based on the information at hand then you may be able to defend yourself.

With out example above, this might be the most likely defence.

A matter of public interest

This is where the law gets slightly more interesting and slightly more relaxed with regards to libel cases. A protection is afforded to those who publish a statement believing it to be in the public interest - morally, legally, socially or otherwise.

The accused must be able to demonstrate that at the time they believed the information to true and that thought it wiser to publish the statement before fact-checking it.

In an environment where - for example - politicians quickly delete errorneous messages after posting them - this is the defence you would probably use.

You might want to quote that tweet before the politician in question deletes it and therefore you might not have time to fact-check it.

You probably have to be posh to be privileged

There are some special circumstances where you can say (rightly or wrongly) whatever you want and be immune to libel law. This is called absolute privilege and yes, you're unlikely to be in a scenario to utilise it, but here goes.

You are immune to libel law - not matter how false or harmful - if;

  • You are part of parliamentary proceedings - though the speaker has some say here I believe
  • You are involved in court proceedings
  • You are communicating with your solicitor

Populated parliament during a debate

Source: http://www.lettera43.it/it/articoli/politica/2013/04/22/regno-unito-la-commissione-di-controllo-troppe-ferie-per-i-deputati/83174/

Innocent retweeting

The very last defence in a libel case is thus. If you can demonstrate (the key word being demonstrate) that you had no idea that what you were publishing was defamatory and that this was not due to negligence on your part you should be safe.

As an example, if the matter of public interest defence above didn't work, you might be able to reprint another newspapers story - or indeed retweet something - that is a breaking news story. That is - you didn't neglect to do the research, there was just no new information.

In summary

Free speech may not be a defence in a case of libel. Twitter (and other social media platforms) propogates this idea that you can say whatever you want online and free speech protects you, but that's not always the case.

Protect yourself on social media by knowing what you're justified in saying. As many Skyrim characters often say...

Your mind is the best weapon you have

Sam Littler