Twitter: What is It and Why Should I Be Concerned
Twitter is a popular social networking site that allows people to send, receive, and read short and concise 140-character messages, more commonly known as ‘tweets’. Not only can users post tweets, they can also ‘retweet’, share, and “like” other user’s posts. Over the last 11 years, Twitter has grown exponentially, with a worldwide reach of over 328 million daily users, 6,000 tweets sent per second, and 200 billion tweets per year.
While Twitter is a great medium for users to post thoughts, reflections, and other interesting things in their life, it also carries certain risks and may be used as a forum to injure and attack users and general members of the public. Twitter is the quintessential candidate for sending your character down the metaphorical rabbit hole of reputation injury, creating a long-lasting and permanent ripple effect.
You’re probably wondering whether you are able to sue someone for posting false, libelous, slanderous, or defamatory tweets on Twitter. While it is widely recognized that Americans enjoy significant protection of their freedom of speech under the 1st Amendment, there are exceptions, and it does not protect and allow for slander, libel, defamation and other calumnious statements.
Depending on your jurisdiction, the same defamation principles that cover tweets, may sometimes cover retweets. It is important to keep in mind that whether a post is declared defamatory is determined on a case by case basis. Courts have held a hard line that merely discussing potentially defamatory posts on social media does not rise to the level of libel. However, they have held that libel and defamation may be found once a user has tacked on a comment or edit, adding something new and original.
The below cases help clarify what will and will not constitute defamation on Twitter:
3 Cases of Legal Recourse for Libel and Defamation on Twitter
1. Courtney Love, Rhonda Holmes, and “Twibel”
In January 2014, The California Court of Appeals found that Courtney Love was not legally liable for defaming her lawyer, Rhonda Holmes, on Twitter.
The case came to light after Ms. Love tweeted that she was “devastated when Rhonda J. Holmes, Esquire, of San Diego, was bought off.” Although the post was originally intended as a direct message, and removed quickly after going public, Ms. Holmes claimed that she suffered damages as a result of the tweet. The case has been commonly referred to as one of the first, major “Twibel” lawsuits, the combination of “Twitter” and “libel.”
Although the jury sympathized that Love’s public statement was false and harmful to Ms. Holmes, they weren’t satisfied that Love didn’t believe the tweet to be true. Ultimately, they found the prosecution failed to prove by clear and convincing evidence, a less rigorous burden of proof standard than beyond a reasonable doubt, that Courtney Love knew what she was writing was false or doubted the veracity of it.
Kurt Cobain’s former partner laid an important foundation in the legal Twitterverse, proving that “Love” does sometimes trump the law (when the is no provable intent).
2. James Woods, Cocaine, and a Deceased Defendant
In what might be known as one of the longest running, overzealous, acts of vengeance against a deceased defendant, a defamation saga, involving James Woods and a Twitter user identified as @abelisted, finally ended in mid-2017.
It began back in 2015 after @abelisted responded to one of Woods’s tweets, tweeting, “cocaine addict James Woods still sniffing and spouting.” Woods launched an offensive, bringing a $10 million dollar suit against the user for injury to his reputation. In 2016, Woods celebrated a notable victory, after a judge denied an anti-SLAPP motion launched by the defendant, the purpose of which was to burden and intimidate Woods and his counsel.
Shortly after, @abelisted passed away, with Woods tweeting, “Learn this. Libel me, I’ll sue you. If you die, I’ll follow you to the bowels of Hell. Get it?” The suit continued, leading to several back and forths regarding the disclosure of the defendant’s identity. Ultimately, the case settled in July, 2017, for an undisclosed amount, saving Woods a trip to Hell to track down his libelous opponent.
3. James Woods (Again), Ohio, and Nazis
Even private individuals aren’t safe from the wrath of false accusations on Twitter. In early 2016, an Ohio woman received death threats after being misidentified as a Nazi in a Trump campaign rally photo by celebrity James Woods and several others. The photo in question, published by the Chicago Tribune, showed a woman giving the Nazi salute while sporting a Trump t-shirt.
Several anonymous Twitter users misidentified the woman as Portia Boulger. Subsequently, Woods tweeted the photo with the caption, “So-called #Trump ‘Nazi’ is a #BernieSanders agitator/operative?” After receiving hundreds of threatening and obscene messages, including death threats, Boulger’s attorneys reached out to Woods. It was only then he deleted them and issued three apology tweets, two of which were false.
The first tweet stated Ms. Boulger had reached out to Woods to ask his followers to stop harassing her, with the second tweet declaring although she was a Bernie Sanders supporter, he would still be happy to defend her from the abuse. In March, 2016, Boulger brought a defamation claim against Woods, asking for $3 million in damages. However, as of October, 2017, there is still no resolution to the case.
Defamation Law Tip: Strategic lawsuits against public participation,” also known as SLAPP suits, are frivolous lawsuits brought by a party with no expectation of winning, solely for the purpose of intimidating, censoring, and bullying the opposition into dropping their case, due to exorbitant time and costs.
As a well-established, highly-developed, and regulated social media platform, Twitter offers a comprehensive abuse policy that aims to create a safe environment for the exchange of information and ideas. For the most up-to-date version of Twitter policies and rules, click here.
In anticipation of the 2016 U.S. Presidential Election, Twitter completed a “refresh” of their abuse policy, to better protect users from abusive accounts and tweets. The newly refreshed abuse policy opened up the reporting channels for abusive content, allowing for bystanders to report and remove libelous information.
On top of that, users are now able to mute specific phrases and keywords, and opt out of any tagged conversations they don’t want to see, eliminating the infamous “Twitter canoe-conundrum.”
What is a Twitter Canoe?
If you are unfamiliar with the “Twitter canoe-conundrum,” grab a paddle. A “Twitter Canoe” is created when three or more users enter into a conversation on Twitter and other users add themselves to it. The users privy to the conversation begin to stack up and accumulate, leaving little-to-no room for an actual conversation to take place. All that is left to do is “grab a paddle” to reign in the “canoe” before it “sinks” and goes off course.
Along with implementing changes to the abuse policy itself, Twitter created a regulating body, comprised of various outside organizations, named the “Twitter Trust and Safety Council.” The Council’s purpose? To stop abuse by advising and assisting Twitter in their administration and regulation of safety products, policies, and programs. To name a few, such organizational members include:
- The Anti-Bullying Pro,
- The Anti-Defamation League,
- The Dangerous Speech Project,
- GLAAD, and
- The International Network Against Cyber Hate (INACH).
Specifically, Twitter’s abuse policy has a section titled ‘Abusive Behavior, outlining prohibited use and behavior.
“We believe in freedom of expression and in speaking truth to power, but that means little as an underlying philosophy if voices are silenced because people are afraid to speak up. In order to ensure that people feel safe expressing diverse opinions and beliefs, we do not tolerate behavior that crosses the line into abuse, including behavior that harasses, intimidates, or uses fear to silence another user’s voice.”
If you are looking for a comprehensive list of which activities and actions constitute unacceptable behavior and abuse, it can be found under their ‘General policies’ page.
- Violent threats: Direct or indirect threats towards other members of the community and public, including the promotion of terrorism.
- Harassment: Abusive and harassing messages sent to others.
- Impersonation: Impersonating others through Twitter with the intent to confuse, mislead, or deceive others.
- Hateful conduct: The promotion of violence and threats against persons based on their sexual orientation, gender, gender identity, race, ethnicity, national origin, religious affiliation, age, disability, or disease.
- Multiple account abuse: The creation of multiple accounts in order to skirt the suspension or termination of a different account.
- Releasing private information: Publishing, without consent, other’s private information, such as their financial information, address, and other personally identifying information.
If a Twitter user posts any tweet that falls into one of the above categories, they can be reported and Twitter has the right to remove the post and possibly the user.
What about Self-Harm?
In cases where a user tweets about self-harm, it is also reportable. Twitter promises to take the appropriate steps to assist and provide resources to users tweeting about self-harm, including providing the user with the contact information of Twitter’s mental health partners.
The Consequences of Libelous and Abusive Tweets
Libelous and false tweets can carry grave consequences for both your personal and professional life. Below are a list of just some of the consequences that may occur after your reputation and name are put into question:
|Anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem||Loss of job opportunities, including wrongful denial of job applications|
|Insomnia, paranoia, and other physical illnesses||Removal from your current position|
|Damage to relationships with friends and family||Loss of customers and business|
|Ridicule and threats by peers and other members of the community||Other financial loss|
Defamation Law Tip: Determining whether a post or statement is fact or opinion is one of the toughest distinctions for a court to rule on, due to the many constructs of the English language. For example, courts have held that rhetorical hyperbole, sobriquets, and figurative language are not grounds for actionable defamation.
How to Report Libel and Slander on Twitter
As noted above, Twitter is a social media platform designed to connect the world. In order to create a harmonious platform and keep their user experience a positive one, Twitter has a sophisticated system designed to filter tweets which violate their policies. An important part of the user experience is allowing for user accountability, thus Twitter encourages users to report posts that they feel are in violation of their rules. According to Twitter user information, if you want to report a Tweet you should follow the below steps:
- Click on the downward arrow icon
- Select “report”
- Select the option that the tweet is abusive or harmful.
Once you have reported the tweet, Twitter will ask you to provide more information about the particular tweet, such as why the tweet was offensive, how long the abuse has been occurring, or if there are any other tweets from that account to support your claim.
Because Twitter has a full staff of trained employees, they will contact you about additional steps you can take. However, while Twitter staff may make some recommendations about what to do next if you feel that you have been defamed, you should consider consulting with an experienced attorney who knows the defamation law in your state.
Work With a Defamation Removal Attorney Today
If you are looking to remove, and minimize, the damage caused or potentially caused by a false and defamatory tweet, the attorneys of Minc Law may be able to work with you. To schedule an initial, free, no-obligation consultation call, dial (216) 373-7706, or schedule a meeting online.