Social Media and Libel

Posted on March 28th 2012

Social Media and Libel

“First Twitter libel trial” does not mean anything new about Twitter and social media; it’s illegal in most jurisdictions to spread lies, but not to spread honestly held opinion.

Social media derives its power, and infamy, because it has empowered personal expression, not because it has empowered lies.

All of the great examples of social media impact are about things like customer experiences, personal opinion, and political expression.

Although people’s opinions may be contorted by their perceptions, these are not  matters that can be factually challenged.

Perhaps the only lesson from the libel case is that social media has the look of interpersonal social, but is in effect social publishing.

The way most people conduct their social life is not possible on a public scale. In private people tell each other random, unprovable stuff all the time. ‘In public’ we generally restrain ourselves. Most people don’t find themselves in truly public situations all that often.  So, it could be easy for them to say something ‘private’ in a public forum.

Those of us who have lived careful public and professional lives find it difficult to comprehend that society is now awash with  ordinary personal expression.

Social media is not a gateway for an unruly mob. Social media is part of a shift where citizens are valuing personal expression, and are less interested in the thread of institutional accuracy. 

Lies are still illegal, but life, which is now expressed over social media, is rarely so clear cut.

One thing that has not changed is the notoriously difficult challenge of taking a libel case. This case was no different. Although it was won, it came at a great price. Firstly, the claims were repeated in court (taking the claims out of Twitter and into the mainstream), and secondly the award of NZ$175,000 (plus court costs) is remarkably small compensation for a reputation that was claimed to have commercial benefits.

Social media makes libel more complex. The speed of chatter now quickly makes libelous statements ‘old news’. I suspect that the transience of content is reducing impact of ‘personal’ claims, and in some cases believability. What I mean is that people interact social media in a similar way to interpersonal relations; some statements by people are not treated as seriously as others. Also, in most cases, you can actually count and name the people who saw the libelous statement. You can ask them if they saw it, and were affected. At the very least, you can watch the reaction to see how people treated the commentary.

Previously, a lot of libel cases operated in a vacuum - away from the reality of their impact. They concentrated on the supposed accuracy of the claims. Now we can watch and record as potentially libellous claims get rejected, ignored, repeated, or believed.

Thanks to social media we now all have libel with our breakfast. Social media will make organisations, and some people, more aware of the sort of things that are ‘privately’ said about them. That won’t always be pretty. Rather than lash out, I think we will learn to love ordinary breaksfast libel as the ultimate market survey. For serious online libel, we’ll have far more information about who saw it and how they reacted. Then we can ask: was the reputation damage bad enough to drag it all up again?


Mark Blackham

Director, BlacklandPR

Condensing 25 years of commercial and political PR experience into one tweet.
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