Earlier this month the BBC alleged on a news program that a former Tory politician was a child molester. The report, which didn’t actually name the man, was untrue. But a frenzy of speculation began on Twitter, with thousands of people either tweeting or retweeting the name of Alistair McAlpine—a.k.a. Lord McAlpine, an adviser to Margaret Thatcher when she was prime minister. The BBC has since apologized for sloppy reporting and coughed up £185,000 ($294,000) in damages. But some of those who tweeted about it are facing a probable lawsuit.
Those who repeated the claim include everyone from ordinary tweeters with few followers to high-profile celebrities like British actor Alan Davies with hundreds of thousands of followers. The media is reporting that some 10,000 people could be sued, leading to the largest number of defendants in a case in British legal history.
Of course many of those people were merely doing what most people do on Twitter: passing along gossip, the way they would on Facebook, by text message, or by email. But unlike those, Twitter is completely public. “Twitter is not just a closed coffee shop among friends,” says Andrew Reid, McAlpine’s lawyer. “It goes out to hundreds of thousands of people and you must take responsibility for it. It is not a place where you can gossip and say things with impunity, and we are about to demonstrate that.”
There’s a good chance he’s right, say other libel lawyers. The case has precedence. Earlier this year, Chris Cairns, a professional cricketer, went on trial for match fixing. He was cleared. Cairns turned around and sued for libel a former Indian Premier League chairman, Lalit Modi, who had tweeted about Cairns’ alleged involvement in match-fixing. A judge in London ruled against Modi and awarded Cairns £90,000.
Libel lawyers say the same rules apply in the McAlpine case, and it won’t matter if tweets outright accused McAlpine of child molestation or passed along the BBC report like party gossip. “All tweeters are equally liable,” says Cairn’s lawyer, Rhory Roberton of Collyer Bristow. “Tweeters who don’t think about what they are doing are vulnerable by nature. Some would say stupid.” More than two dozen people who tweeted the news have reportedly come forward, apologized, and paid a nominal fee to go to charity. But others may not get off so easily.
Over the past year, a number of lawsuits have suggested that Twitter is fair game as a public forum in the eyes of lawyers and judges. One case gained attention perhaps because it sought $1 million in damages for a single tweet and a posting on a not particularly popular blog. It involved an Oregon woman who blogged and tweeted allegations about a plastic surgeon’s sexual conduct. The doctor had been disciplined in the past for “intimate physical contact” and for suggesting it could serve as pay for treatment, but his public reprimand made no mention of sex. The case was later dropped by the doctor, reported the Oregonian.
Often cases have involved high-profile types who really ought to know better (or at least should be better advised). The musician Courtney Love has been sued at least twice, once by her own former lawyers, over vitriol spewed via Twitter. An NBA referee sued the Associated Press for defamation resulting from a tweet sent by a sports writer suggesting he’d made a bad call to make up for an earlier bad call.
The libel case involving Love and her former lawyers is still ongoing, but the other suits were ultimately dropped or settled. The executive director at the Media Law Resource Center says that as far as the center is aware, no other libel case about something published on Twitter has made it into a US courtroom. In the UK, at least one Twitter-related case has led to a conviction, though for threats, not libel: In 2010, a man posted a tweet saying he would blow up a South Yorkshire airport if it didn’t reopen soon. He later said it was a joke: he wanted to see a girl (whom he had met via Twitter) and couldn’t fly out because of a snow closure. The judge didn’t see it that way and fined him roughly £1,000 including costs. The ruling was, however, overturned this past summer, when judges ruled that the tweet wasn’t menacing after all.
But as Twitter becomes more widely used, not just by ordinary people but also by media organizations, such cases are bound to proliferate. Indeed, Twitter exposes traditional media to a kind of risk they’ve never encountered before: The internet can take something that wasn’t a libel and turn it into one. In the BBC case, McAlpine was not named on Newsnight. The provable defamation happened only when people started guessing at his identity and tweeting his name. Says libel lawyer Robertson: “Had no one tweeted, the BBC would have had an argument that McAlpine was not identified, and thus his claim in libel against them would fail.”