An article in today’s Business Tech warns twitter users (primarily South African twitter users, one would imagine) against tweeting potentially defamatory statements about athlete Oscar Pistorius, currently – in case you hadn’t heard – charged with the murder of his girlfriend Reeva Steenkamp.
According to legal expert Paul Jacobson:
“While our Bill of rights gives us the right to express our opinions, our rights are not absolute and, in the context of defamation, the defamed person’s right to dignity often holds sway unless there are clear public policy reasons to allow the comments to stand.”
He pointed out that Pistorius is yet to be found guilty and is therefore, still under law, innocent.
“Drawing conclusions about Pistorius’ guilt and publishing those conclusions online can lead to a defamation claim down the line.”
Well, aside from the whole common sense thing, the warning signs were there for all to see late last year in the Lord McAlpine/Newsnight scandal:
The legal position of an individual who posts content online, be it on Facebook, Twitter, or on comment sections of online news pages, is clear: He or she is responsible for that content. Ignorance of the law is not a defence.
It’s not that hard to understand why: the viral nature with which content – and therefore false or defamatory content – can spread on social networks is one of their strengths and yet one of their biggest downfalls as well. And:
When individuals post material online, they act as publishers and their publications are subject to the same laws as those of professional publishers, such as newspapers.
This includes publications made by way of a tweet. A retweet also amounts to a further publication.
The person who retweets that material will be responsible for the content of that retweet.
So yes, we each have to be responsible for our 140-character output. And that seems reasonable to me.
One wonders, however, where that leaves twitter users who – in good faith – share stories from recognised and “reputable” sources – namely our national newspapers.
Last Sunday’s City Press is a good case in point. The “facts” it published ahead of the Pistorius bail hearing, have since been shown to be almost entirely incorrect, but they were widely lapped up and regurgitated by a gossip-hungry twitter audience on the weekend. That “Exclusive” was shared on over 1000 occasions directly from the page alone and excerpts and quotes from it many more times over.
That’s a lot of people who could potentially find themselves in trouble.
UPDATE: Or at least be “asked” to make a donation to charity.