The High Court in England has ruled that a tweet by Sally Bercow, linking Lord McAlpine (a retired British politician) to a report that an unnamed conservative politician was implicated in historic child sex abuse, was defamatory. The case is an important reminder that comments on social media can have serious consequences.
The proceedings followed a Newsnight report alleging that an unnamed conservative politician had been involved in the sexual abuse of boys in care. Following the news report, a number of tweets linked Lord McAlpine to the report. BBC, ITV and a number of other tweeters apologised for their part in the story, and the BBC and ITV both paid Lord McAlpine six figure settlements, presumably to avoid proceedings and damages for defamation.
The tweet by Sally Bercow at the centre of this case read "Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*". Sally Bercow maintained that her tweet was not defamatory. The Judge in the High Court held that the ordinary meaning of the tweet was that Lord McAlpine was a paedophile who was guilty of abusing boys in care, as it was the final piece of the puzzle linking Lord McAlpine to the Newsnight report. The Judge rejected an argument from Sally Bercow's counsel that Twitter was simply a place to share random thoughts without necessarily meaning anything.
This case reiterates that social media is just like the real world - the normal rules relating to defamatory comments apply. It is also a reminder of the very public nature of social media. While a comment made to a few friends is unlikely to result in liability for defamation, a comment made on Twitter is shared with the world.