Just because something is tweeted doesn’t mean it is treated any differently than something spoken, written in an article, or blogged. Poynter’s Mallary Jean Tenore gives a great overview of the potentially libelous nature of tweets, and how journalists can protect themselves.
To start with, a tweet can be considered libelous.
As Tenore explains, some people think that tweets are exempt from libel laws, because they are impermanent. They flit in and out of existence in a matter of minutes. However, she stresses that this is not the case (as we all know), and it’s the same sort of thinking that got early bloggers – many of whom posted whatever they liked – into some legal hot water.
David Ardia, an assistant professor of law at the University of North Carolina, explains why Twitter is a potentially hazardous place for journalists:
“Statements on Twitter can form the basis of a defamation lawsuit just as much as any form of publication. It’s just sometimes with new technology, it takes a little longer for people to start to take what they read seriously enough — and more importantly for lawyers — to pay enough attention to start to bring lawsuits based on it.”
As it stands, there are a number of libel cases involving Twitter that are currently in negotiations or which have been settled. Courtney Love’s is perhaps the most notorious Twitter libel case, as she was required to pay the equivalent of $430,000 for negative tweets she made about a dress designer (and the embattled woman is being sued yet again, this time by her former law firm, for defamatory tweets). A British politician was also sued for libel on Twitter, and a UK man was sued for tweeting about the man his wife was having an affair with.
But, as Tenore points out, there is only one case of Twitter libel against a news organization: the suit against AP staff writer Jon Krawczynski who tweeted that an NBA referee was making bad calls.
Tenore goes on to discuss, with libel lawyers, what news organizations and journalists can do to protect themselves from libel on Twitter.
First, they discuss the one thing that really sets Twitter apart from other forms of publication: “Under section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, news organizations are protected from defamation liability for content that’s created by a third party.”
In basic terms, this means you cannot be sued for something you retweet, even if the original tweet is libelous.
However, if you add to the tweet something defamatory, you would be held responsible for that portion of the tweet.
And if an employee – like a journalists – were to tweet something libelous, the news organization is only responsible if that tweet was made in connection with their work. If it wasn’t work related, only the employee would be responsible.
News organizations are also encouraged to outline a very clear social media policy, and to remind its employees that what they say on Twitter and other social networks can be treated just like something they’ve written up for publication.