Social media has completely changed the way we communicate. Perhaps the most profound novelty of social media is that it facilitates random arguments between complete strangers. You don’t have to spend much time on social media before you start to see the occasional snarky or even vicious comment. Consider this recent incident: during a series of discussions involving the sale of a horse, a random horse dealer inserted herself into the discussion by calling the horse’s previous owner, Mara Feld, “f***ing crazy” on Twitter. Offended, Mara filed a libel lawsuit.
Libel occurs when someone prints a false and malicious statement of fact about you that harms your reputation. Twibel occurs when someone commits libel on Twitter.
Feld sued the horse dealer for libel, claiming that her reputation was damaged by the dealer’s statement on Twitter as the whole world saw that comment.
The court ruled that since online discussions are often heated, one has to look at the context in which the comments are made. Looking at the transcript of the Twitter conversation, the court ruled that a reasonable person would not have thought that the tweet stated an actual fact, but instead, they would have taken it as an opinion or criticism. Libel only applies when someone says false and damaging statements of fact about you. Thus, the court ruled that libel did not occur in this case.
When Can You Be Held Liable for Twibel?
When dealing with a libel case, the court has to decide whether someone has made a malicious statement of fact. For example, in Cox v. Obsidian Finance, Cox called someone at Obsidian a “tax delinquent” and accused him of fraud and corruption on a blog. The court found Cox liable for the specific factual accusations, but declared that the rest and the majority of his accusations were simple hyperbole/figurative language. This was because Cox wrote in a stream of consciousness format and used “extreme language.” The fact that Cox was venting rather than making specific factual statements protected him from being held liable for all the statements. However, the court did hold Cox liable for certain malicious statements of facts that he made because those statements injured Obsidian’s reputation.
So, before getting into a particularly heated Twitter exchange, just remember to avoid damaging statements of facts and just stick to insults that can’t be proven.