Social media is not immune to defamation laws. More and more, courts locally and around the world have come to the aid of those who are the subject of defamatory statements made on Twitter and Facebook. The danger of social media is that it’s so easy to tweet before you think.

To avoid getting caught up in a costly defamation fight:

  • Think before you post. Posting in a moment of anger or without knowledge of all the facts will leave you with very little defence.
  • React to false statements about yourself or your business in a positive way.
  • Remember that what you post online is not only a reflection of you but potentially your business or your employer.
  • Delete and apologise. It’s never too late to take a shot at avoiding a costly dispute with a retraction and an apology.
  • Do not litigate on principle. The costs will quickly outrun your principles.

The London High Court awarded £90 000 in damages in the Chris Cairns twitter debacle, in which the international cricketer’s claim was based on a tweet by the then chairman of the Indian Premier League, Lalit Modi, that implied he was involved in match fixing.

In another case, a Welsh politician tweeted on the day of a council election in 2009 that one of his opponents had to be removed by police from a polling station. It was a case of mistaken identity and the defamation suit that followed ended in a damages award and an order to pay substantial costs.

Italian courts have held that posting offensive statements on a social media personal profile not only amounts to defamatory conduct, but is also aggravated by the means through which the statements are distributed.

The danger of social media is that it’s so easy to tweet before you think.

In the USA there are an increasing number of Twitter defamation cases including one brought against actress Courtney Love. She won, but the cost of litigation was no doubt high.

In South Africa, following the first judgment recognising a case of defamation via Facebook, in another judgment modest damages of R40 000 were awarded. Interestingly, the second defendant in this latest case was found just as liable as the first defendant despite only having been “tagged” in the first defendant’s post. The court held that he had associated himself with the defamatory post. There was no retraction and no apology from the defendants, a fact that was severely criticised by the presiding judge. A retraction and apology, he said, would have gone a long way towards mitigating the plaintiff’s damages.

South Africa awaits its first Tweetfamation case, if you follow our advice, think before you tweet, hopefully you’ll avoid having a front row seat.