Twitter defamation first may be the tip of the iceberg

9 Jan 2013

Yesterday’s Twitter defamation victory for Declan Ganley over blogger Kevin Barrington may only be the start of a number of such cases as official and public resolve hardens against abusive comments on social media sites.

Barrington, in what is understood to be one of the first libel actions taken in Ireland over comments made on a social media site, apologised to Ganley for remarks he made about the political activist in December on Twitter.

The blogger is understood to have made a substantial charity donation to the Poor Clares and has undertaken never to make defamatory remarks about Declan Ganley on social media ever again.

Political activist Ganley from the Libertas party was represented by Belfast-based media lawyer Paul Tweed.

It is understood that the case centred on comments made by Barrington on 12 December.

Ganley was prepared to turn the other cheek until he felt the comments became personal.

One of the clear signals to come from the case is that the legal establishment is of the view that comments made on social media sites, like Twitter and Facebook, are just as defamatory as comments that appear in print or on broadcast media.

It is understood that following the case, there are as many as a dozen or more further cases pending as public figures are now resolved to take a hardline approach to comments made about them on social media sites.

The development may serve as a wake-up call to many social media users who casually and flippantly respond to developments that may catch their attention, good or bad.

The Ganley case comes in the wake of another brewing scandal in the UK concerning Lord John McAlpine. A broadcast on BBC current affairs programme Newsnight that incorrectly linked him to sex abuse sparked a tirade of commentary on Twitter and now the former politician is taking legal action.

Among those in the legal crosshairs is Sally Bercow, wife of House of Commons speaker John Bercow. McAlpine is seeking legal action against 20 Twitter users who wrongly identified him as a child abuser.

A wake-up call for social media

The entire situation – as devastating as it has been for the wronged parties – is nevertheless a timely development in the relatively short history of social media.

In a sense, social media is being forced to grow up and those who use it can continue to do so provided they behave in a mature and responsible manner. They can express their points of view, provided they are not libelling a person or business or defaming their character.

Defamation – an attempt to denigrate another person’s character or reputation – and libel are just as real on electronic media as they have been in print media for hundreds of years now.

The latest cases concerning Ganley and McAlpine come around the same time as the public in Ireland has been horrified by the tragic deaths recently of a number of teenagers and a senior politician. Harsh comments made on social media sites are believed by many to have been contributing factors in these deaths.

As a result, there is an inevitable hardening of views in Irish society – not only among the population, but especially among the political and media establishments – towards comments made on social media sites. Let’s not forget just how big an impact social media has had on Irish society – about 2m people, half the population, have a Facebook account and of these 1.5m log in every day.

This latest development concerning Ganley should not necessarily have to result in freedom of speech being curbed on social media sites.

But it and other cases could also potentially signal the end of anonymity, for example, and the ability for people to hide behind avatars.

In November, the High Court granted court orders to US Oil Gas plc (USOP), an Irish-based oil exploration company allowing it to seek the identity of people who allegedly posted defamatory material on internet message boards, including, causing the oil company to lose stg£132m of market value.

USOP intends to take legal action against those who posted the material.

In a sense, the Ganley and McAlpine sagas and the USOP case are clear indicators that the legal establishment is quickly assimilating the lessons of social media as its most fervent users have freely done so in recent years.

You can’t say what you like about other people unless you have the facts to back up your claims.

And now the floodgates are about to open.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years