Legislating Defamation on Social Media

[This is a repost of a study paper I wrote for University at the end of last year, I wrote it much like I would a blog post but had to subject it to fiercely draconian editing to stay within the word limit so interested in how it compares to my normal stuff.]


Social media has irrevocably altered the way in which people view and react to content. Whereas newspapers and television broadcasts are decidedly one-way and controlled by a privileged few, the Web uniquely inverts this. Sites like Twitter and YouTube have empowered individuals to broadcast their content globally and, in turn, allowed others to directly respond and fuel discussion.

As with any emerging technology, the result has been a plethora of unprecedented legal cases that existing law has, at times, struggled to adapt to. One of the most prominent examples of this is defamation cases being brought against people for statements they’ve made online.


The origin of what became modern libel law contains language distinctly rooted in the context of newspapers [1]. The prohibitive cost of printing at the time meant that only companies selling newspapers for profit could afford to widely disperse information, so they have very strong business interests in avoiding costly litigation. Furthermore, the nature of hiring trained, professional journalists meant those responsible for cases of libel could be directly held to account. Although, due to the editorial influence the newspaper has, liability is more often considered to be with the owner of the publication itself than the writer [2].


Social media utterly democratised the ability to publish information to a large audience, from laconic micro-bloggers to “citizen journalists” presenting information as news.

At time of writing, the law for dealing with cases of defamation makes no distinction between a libellous statement made by a large mainstream newspaper and one made by a Twitter user with followers in the single-digits. In the eyes of the law, every single Twitter user is effectively a newspaper editor and thus subject to exactly the same regulation [3].

This approach is impractical for a number of reasons. Firstly, it fails to acknowledge that most social media users are regular people without any training or concept of media law. Secondly, it grossly overestimates the amount of damage to someone’s reputation the claims of most social media users can have, given the dilution effect caused by the volume of posts. Thirdly, it opens the floodgates for anyone to initiate expensive legal actions as merely a tool to censor even the mildest criticism.


Of course, libel laws have an important purpose: to protect people from having their reputation damaged by the broadcast of misinformation. Since social media websites are undeniably a broadcast medium, there is no defensible argument for giving it complete exemption from defamation regulation. There are examples of libel laws being appropriately applied when someone’s reputation is damaged by a statement made online [4][5].


However, in these cases the plaintiff and the defendant were of similar professional status. The former had a reputation to protect and the latter had enough of an online influence to genuinely damage it. Conventional libel suits require the claimant to prove damage to their reputation [6], but this hasn’t prevented public figures threatening legal action against social media users, regardless of follower count [7].

In the UK, even “re-tweeting” (the Twitter equivalent of attributed quoting) can make you liable to legal action [7]. Whereas, in the US, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act grants immunity to online users for quoting the aspersive claims of another [8].

It should also be acknowledged that not all social media users are equal. A defamatory statement from Stephen Fry (for example), with over 5 million followers, has a far greater likely proliferation than the vast majority of other Twitter users, with less than 50 [9].

The Crown Prosecution Service is currently developing interim guidelines that would take into account the “reach” of a social media user when deciding if offensive comment warrants conviction [10]. This could be applied to libel, since, in order to significantly damage someone’s reputation, the user making the claim must have a substantial “reach”. However, the interconnected nature of social networks means that a claim made by a low-reach user could be potentially proliferated amongst the entire network by others. As mentioned, each repetition is technically a separate libel, but the plaintiff will more likely pursue its originator. Nevertheless, acknowledgement that social media cannot be feasibly regulated by existing law is progress.


At time of writing, the Defamation Bill 2012 is being put through parliament to bring libel law more in line with the current socio-technological context [11][12]. Though the Bill may be modified in the coming weeks, its current form establishes that the offending comment must cause “serious harm” to the plaintiff’s reputation. However, what constitutes “serious harm” is ambiguous and subjective, therefore cannot be effectively proscribed in law. Furthermore, “serious harm” may be caused to reputation among low-reach social media users on a local level, but the context is not considered.

The Bill also introduces a “single publication rule” on published statements. Presently, though limitations exist on the actionable period from a libellous claim’s publication, the comment’s individual reprinting is considered an entirely new publication, thereby resetting the litigable clock [13]. The introduction of a single publication rule will ensure that attributed quoting of a mendacious statement is actionable only against the original speaker within the statute of limitation on its original publication. This effectively immunises people from facing legal action for retweeting.


Attempts to reform libel legislation to consider social media seem reluctant to acknowledge the many forms online libel can take. As we’ve seen, nebulous terms like “reach” still assume a strictly one-to-many relationship between speaker and audience. However, this is understandable in such a complex area. Social media evolves so rapidly that legislation too specific to its current incarnation will likely become outdated fast; whilst too vague legislation will be ineffective. A careful balance must be found, assuming one exists.


[1] “Libel and Registration Act,” 1881. [Online]. Available: http://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/Vict/44-45/60/enacted.
[Accessed 29 11 2012].

[2] A. Keen, “The Cult of Amateur: How Blogs, MySpace, YouTube and the Rest of Today’s User Generated Media are Killing Our Culture and Economy,” in Truth and Lies, Currency Press, 2007, p. 74.

[3] “Grayling warns Twitter users also face libel laws,” 14 11 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.itv.com/news/update/2012-11-13/grayling-warns-twitter-users-also-face-libel-laws/. [Accessed 30 11 2012].

[4] “Ex-cricketer Chirs Carins wins £90,000 libel damages,” BBC News, 26 03 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-17512027. [Accessed 30 11 2012].

[5] “Twitter libel: Caerphilly councillor pays rival £3000,” BBC News, 10 03 2011. [Online]. Available: http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-wales-south-east-wales-12704955. [Accessed 29 11 2012].

[6] “Legal definition of ‘Libel’,” [Online]. Available: http://dictionary.law.com/Default.aspx?selected=1153. [Accessed 14 11 2012].

[7] A. Taylor, “Why A British Politician Is Planning To Sue ‘At Least’ 10,000 Twitter Users,” Business Insider, 19 11 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.businessinsider.com/lord-mcalpine-sues-10000-twitter-users-2012-11. [Accessed 6 12 2012].

[8] “US Communications Decency Act,” Cornell University Law School, 1 2 1996. [Online]. Available: http://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/47/230#c. [Accessed 5 12 2012].

[9] Beevolve, “An Exhaustive Study of Twitter Users Across the World,” 16 10 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.beevolve.com/twitter-statistics/#b1. [Accessed 6 12 2012].

[10] C. Williams, “Unpopular Twitter accounts could escape prosecution for ‘grossly offensive’ tweets,” The Telegraph, 13 11 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/twitter/9675548/Unpopular-Twitter-accounts-could-escape-prosecution-for-grossly-offensive-tweets.html#. [Accessed 29 11 2012].

[11] “Defamation Bill 2012-13,” UK Parliament, 24 9 2012. [Online]. Available: http://services.parliament.uk/bills/2012-13/defamation.html.
[Accessed 6 12 2012].

[12] “Defamation Bill 2012-13 (content),” 21 9 2012. [Online]. Available: http://www.publications.parliament.uk/pa/bills/lbill/2012-2013/0041/20130041.pdf. [Accessed 6 12 2012].

[13] R. A. Leflar, “The Single Publication Rule,” Rocky Mountain Law Review (Issue 3), p. 263, April 1953.

Blessed are the Cheesemakers

It seems like every town has an elderly eccentric that few have met but everyone knows. My home town has a man who cycles around on a bike with dozens of pin-wheels attached to the basket whilst wearing garish patterned trousers, like Noel Edmonds trying to recreate the flying bicycle scene from E.T. Whilst plenty of these amusing nutters will make bold assertions on behalf of the supposed creator of the Universe, only one city has taken these geriatric ramblings so seriously as to put their author in charge.

Pope Benedict XVI has been extolling wisdom, theology and questionable condom advice throughout his seven year Papacy, only now he’s joined Twitter so he can shout into an entirely new indifferent abyss. Before his befrocked Holiness had even said anything, his follower count burst past the one-million mark. These comprised a combination of devout followers and bemused heathens, primed in the off-chance his senility wasn’t being filtered through a dozen advisors and he ended up tweeting that God’s favourite creature was actually the Dairylea Dunker.

Pope's Twitter Page

It’s not even like his absurd follower count – online that is, not his absurd follower count in reality – was a case of follow-back guilt, since he’d only followed his own accounts in different languages. After that whole Tower of Babel thing, he really had no choice. In any case, a few days later he made his proper debut, in which he blessed everyone who’d shown up so far, which seems an unwise strategy, what if there were child molesters following him? Oh.

Just like Gary Glitter (albeit later found out to be fake), the sudden appearance of someone directly involved in pedophilia on a public forum has invoked the wrath of keyboard vigilantes. Pesky atheists, why can’t they just shut up and let the Catholic Church systematically abuse children in peace?

Oddly, the subject of the Pontiff shielding pedophiles in the Clergy and silencing their victims through intimidation and guilt hasn’t come up. All we’ve had so far is meaningless platitudes about faith straight from the cliché handbook. All fourteen of Benny’s tweets, at time of writing, have been vapid, ghost-written (possibly by the Holy Spirit) and barely worth the pixels they’re rendered in. However, from the response each one has had, you’d think he’d been claiming that condoms increase the risk of STIs…again.

Cool story, bro.

History doesn’t favour a heartfelt disavowal of pedophiliac priests to come any time soon. The Catholic Church neglected to acknowledge that Galileo’s “heretical” claim that the Earth orbited the Sun was, in fact, correct until 1992. Back in 2000, the incumbent Pope issued a nondescript, blanket apology for all the mistakes the Church had made. That’s a hell of a long wait just to see the horrific crimes be hand-waved off with all the sincerity of a sneering Lord throwing a penny at the foot of a beggar.

The irony of the Catholic leader using a product bearing a logo referencing original sin notwithstanding, have a good look at what we have in this video. A deteriorating husk of a human-being jabbing stupefied at a glowing rectangle at the behest of his handler. If there was any doubt left that he’s not really writing these tweets, that video should settle them; I’d be surprised if he even knew what he was doing in that clip.

Ultimately, the Pope has joined Twitter so that he can preach to the choir. Those managing the account are clearly not interested in theological debate or addressing the many issues that surround the church. Especially since, given that the abuse scandal has effectively blown over, nothing will be tweeted that hasn’t been utterly exorcised of anything substantive that may risk giving more cause for criticism. Those who lambaste the puppet account of a feeble old man spouting myopic philosophy are just wasting their time, that may be better spent defending children from the monsters he shields.