The pitfalls of social media
A former chairman of a UK Independence Party branch has been ordered to pay £40,000 in damages to a man defamed on Twitter - even though he did not write the offending tweet.
Ruling in Zahir Monir v Steve Wood, the Honourable Mr Justice Nicklin accepted that Steve Wood had not written or approved the tweet, made from the UKIP branch account and picturing a Labour election candidate alongside two men described as “child grooming taxi drivers”. However, the judge held that the tweet’s author, John Langley, was “quite clearly acting as the agent of Mr Wood”. The judgement affirms that even though a web post is seen by relatively few people, it can meet the “serious harm” test established by the 2013 Defamation Act, and notwithstanding that at least some of those who view it know immediately that it is untrue.
Mr Monir, took action after his attention was drawn to the tweet, which the judge described as “a very serious defamatory allegation”. It was published in the run up to the 2015 general election to @BristolUKIP’s 547 followers; it was retweeted at least 17 times and it was “liked” at least eight times. The court heard that Mr Monir had identified Wood as the branch chairman and telephoned to complain, and later contacted the police. However, the judge ruled that Mr Wood had not taken Mr Monir’s complaints seriously, quoting Mr Wood as saying that as a bailiff, challenges to his authority were as “water off a duck’s back”. According to the judgement, Mr Wood’s conviction that he had done nothing wrong “together with his stubbornness and self confidence … led him to have adopted an uncompromising approach to Mr Munir’s claim”. In particular, Mr Wood argued that Mr Langley, originally named on the claim form, should be held responsible.
The proceedings were served on Mr Wood after it became apparent that there was no prospect of recovering damages from Mr Langley, a self-styled “maverick” who had a sideline as a pornographic video maker and actor under the name “Johnny Rockard”. In his witness statement, Mr Wood had initially maintained “I do not use Twitter”, saying he would need to be taught or have it demonstrated, but nonetheless the judge found that “the evidence satisfies me that Mr Wood was familiar with Twitter and, contrary to the impression given in his witness statement, he was perfectly capable of using (and did use) Twitter”.
On the serious harm test, the judge said that even though witnesses who had recognised Mr Monir from the tweet knew that the allegation was false, “an unquantifiable number of further publishees” who saw it reproduced on WhatsApp groups might have been able to identify him.
On damages, the judge said that the gravity of the allegation “puts it to the top end of seriousness”, compounded by Wood’s “intransigence and his refusal publicly to apologise”. Had the libel been published in a national newspaper, he said that £250,000 or more could have been justified. In the particular circumstances of the case, the figure of £40,000 was proportionate to the limited scale of publication and the “difficulties of causation”.
The injudicious use of social media will only see more and more cases of this type coming before the Court, and this case highlights the danger of inappropriate and ill-considered social media content.
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