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Summary:

People retweet lies and errors on Twitter all the time. Are there special cases where they should be punished for doing so? That’s what happened in the UK, raising questions again about how to regulate speech on not just Twitter, but other sites where you can slander with a single click.

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Twitter is a broadcast platform like radio or TV and if you use it irresponsibly, some believe you should pay a price. That’s why a U.K. man is paying £15,000 (about $25,000) after he retweeted a claim that wrongly identified a British lord as a child molester.

“From my own experience, I am able to warn others of the dangers of retweeting,” said Alan Davies, after paying up to settle a lawsuit after the lord accused Davies of defamation. The lord is also targeting about 20 more of the 10,000 or so people who tweeted or retweeted the false accusation.

So is Davies’ punishment fair? In some ways, yes: after all, how would you feel if hundreds of people tweeted you were a child molester? But on the other hand, the penalty is harsh. It only takes one click to retweet something, and Twitter is a spontaneous form of media — meaning that most regular Twitter users have probably retweeted misinformation at one point or another.

Davis may have shown bad judgment in retweeting something so serious (especially as the retweet came in response to a question he put to Twitter) but a full blown libel case seems excessive — and may have chilling effects on Twitter’s role as a news source.

The outcome would likely have been different in the United States, where free speech rights are much broader. Unfortunately, unlike in the U.K., American judges have yet to declare when a tweet is defamatory — and some lawyers have argued that everything on Twitter is just a form of opinion, which is not subject to defamation charges.

While singer Courtney Love has been sued repeatedly for using Twitter to call people thieves and prostitutes (leading her daughter to declare “Twitter should ban my mother“), the cases did not make it to trial. And, as yet, no one in America has tried to sue over a retweet.

The legal issues over repeating lies on Twitter are not just academic, and need to get cleared up sooner than later. The outcome will not only shape Twitter’s future as a broadcast platform, but will also help affect Tumblr, BuzzFeed and other sites where users can share a story — or a slander — with one click.

  1. When you sue people for something just because they don’t like it, this is the end of all people freedom. With the web there is freedom. Heck if I can’t post and say what I want I delete all my social media contacts. I don’t re-post things like that about anyone.

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    1. It’s not just because they don’t like it. It’s because it’s false and disparages someone in a certain manner. For example, if the tweet had just been a claim that the person is ugly, that wouldn’t be actionable. But to tweet that they molest children, that takes it a step further. That is a statement that the person is doing an illegal and despicable action.

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    2. Freedom has its limits and has nothing to do with not liking it. You are free to express and opinion like I am here but are not free to slander people. It can be extremely malicious and can impact a person’s life in a very negative way. This may include mental stress and suicide through to commercial loss if their business is impacted. Has a lot to do with cowards hiding behind imaginary identities.

      The problem with these mickey mouse social media sites is that they do not reflect the way we operate in our real lives.

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      1. When I say something I don’t hind behind a fake name. I tell it as I see it i’m not always right. No one is. I don’t make lies either.

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  2. My Twitter account lasted only a week or two before I cancelled it as being pointless, and that was a long time ago, so I don’t remember at all how the system works. When you retweet is there attribution to the original source or at least the last source? If not, I could see how there could easily be slander/defamation claims.

    I can’t imagine why anyone would post anything anywhere without attribution, if it wasn’t an original thought.

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  3. Interesting story!

    I don’t understand why 20/10,000 who retweeted the post are the ones who have to pay. I don’t know anything about the laws in the U.K, but in my opinion, if anyone should get in trouble for this, it should be the creator of the original tweet. Most people do not do research on a tweet before retweeting it. Honestly, most of them probably saw it and thought they were doing a public service by sharing. And why only 20? If they all retweeted the same exact message, isn’t it only fair to charge all 10,000?

    I do understand the severity of the damage that can be done to his name as a result of this being passed around, but I think maybe a few official statements defending himself to the public might have been a little more reasonable!

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    1. Valentine North Saturday, October 26, 2013

      Maybe. But it shows how people think of Twitter. As a massive chat room, where they can shout something without a care for consequences.
      As for why he sues only 20? Well, it’s probably cheaper than the whole 10.000, though, if he had the money, he should have went after every one of them.

      And if all this happened because it only take a single click, then maybe Twitter is also to blame.

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      1. You’re right, it really is like a massive chat room. I would think of it more of a way to pass around opinions and thoughts, not credible enough to believe everything you read on it. If i were reading, i might believe something that a news source or an established well known business said, but that is all. Maybe the British lord doesn’t understand that, or is just mad and is willing to take anyone down that he can.

        If lawsuits are to come of a single retweet, maybe Twitter should remind you to check your facts before doing so!

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  4. Thanks, everyone, for the comments.. The “why sue only 20 of the 10,000 people” is a good question. I think Lord McAlpine selected the more influential people who had either a public profile or lots of followers.

    While this “sue the big fish” strategy makes sense, it also raises yet another legal dilemma: should the standards be more strict for someone who has more followers (Om, for example, has more than 1 million) — and presumably knows they’re likely to be retweeted?

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    1. Good point! I hadn’t thought of that.

      If that is what he is going for, then maybe they should consider making the danger of legal trouble more known. Some influential twitter users are 15 year olds with a lot of friends and relatable posts, they don’t understand the power that comes with their followers, but you are right, they are definitely more likely to be retweeted. And they are definitely the type of twitter user that would retweet that type of post.

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    2. Howard Winkler Monday, October 28, 2013

      The question you raise goes to the issue of damages rather than liability.

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  5. Reblogged this on Bills Blog and commented:
    something to think about before you hit retweet in the UK!

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  6. Does this also apply to the politicians and bankers? That out to bankrupt them in no time!!

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  7. Just deactivated my twitter account. Too risky.

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  8. Corrupted Mind Monday, October 28, 2013

    Speech is free. Publishing is not. Twitter is a publishing platform. If you want to speculate about the sexual predilections of someone who (a) has a reputation to protect and (b) knows how to operate th English legal system. Then I would sugest you do so in the privacy of your home or over a pint at your local. But before you type your 140 characters or that retweet button it is essential that you realise that you are no long joe schmo with an opinion but a publisher who has the potential to reach millions of readers and therefore must act responsibly like all other publishers (online or dead tree).

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  9. People are not equipped to handle freedom of speech. I do think that we are going to have much stricker rules for the Internet in the near future and that the anonimity of the Internet is going to dissapear. 10 years ago the Internet were a lot smaller and “nicer”, but with the rapid growth of the Internet things like malicious rumors, outright lies, cyberbullying and privacy issues are more prevalent than ever. All these things will drive authorities to take the anonimity of the Internet away.

    Golden rule is if you can’t take responsibility for something you say, don’t say it. Unfortunetely most people today don’t think that far.

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  10. It seems to me that there should be some kind of “reasonableness” standard — if the ordinary person might have a reason to believe that something isn’t true, yet they retweet, I can see that being actionable.

    The thing is, Facebook is even worse … I wish I had a $1 for everyone in my timeline who passes on the latest urban legend, even though the other half of my timeline (me included) has posted something from Urban Legend or Snopes or some similar site explaining it’s a hoax.

    Most of this is common sense — and if you hurt someone by being irresponsible about what you share on the ‘Net, I can understand why you’d have to pay (although US$25,000 either seems like a lot or not enough, depending on how you look at it.) Also, why isn’t the person who posted the Tweet originally being sued?

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