Twitter: a legal mine-field

Twitter. It’s brilliant right? Instant updates from your friends or family across the world in a perfect bite-sized chunk of 140 characters. You can comment, reply, direct message or tweet to the Twitterverse about your dog, your dinner or your new hairdo.

But what about revealing a superinjunction? Or messaging the defendant of a drugs trial?

The average user in their lifetime on Twitter will never approach such issues, but what can seem like a passing remark about a case that’s in the news could actually land you in hot water – or in some cases, jail.

So how can a mere 140 characters potentially end up in a legal battle?

The first thing to recognise is that the internet isn’t free from the law. Although anyone can post on the internet, if what is posted is offensive, it can still get the author in a lot of trouble.

For example, if you post a hateful message about someone which could potentially damage their reputation, you could be seen in a court as committing libel. You may have posted it in haste or as a throwaway comment but once it’s been read – perhaps by your 250 followers – you have written a defamatory statement.

In the eyes of the law, you haven’t even got to name a person to commit a libellous offence. By inferring who it might be, that could be enough to identify that person, and leave you at risk.

Recent figures have shown that “46% of 18- to 24-year-olds are unaware they can be sued for defamation if they tweet an unsubstantiated rumour about someone, according to research for law firm Wiggin”.

Peaches Geldof inadvertently named two co-defendants in the recent trial of former Lostprophets frontman Ian Watkins. She was unaware that victims of sexual offences are given lifetime anonymity automatically, unless they deliver in writing a letter to the courts allowing themselves to be named. This protects the victim on numerous levels and allows them to move forward with their life.

The women in this case were the mothers of the victims. By naming them, the victims can be ‘jigsaw identified’. The price for doing so? As this is a criminal offence, a potential jail sentence and hefty fine.

The attorney general is due to publish court advisory notes that until now have been reserved for mainstream media outlets. Will education stem the problem? Keep yourself safe, heed the advice and think before you tweet.

This blog post was originally written for www.crocstar.com.

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