An increase in online “trolling” and the use of social media and blogs as a means of providing instant opinions and complaints has led to the courts over recent years having to constantly review the interpretation of the Defamation Act 2013.

In simple terms, a statement is considered to be defamatory if it causes, or is likely to cause, serious harm to the reputation of the claimant. We have examined recent case law to provide guidance on defamation claims across Twitter, Facebook and blogs which are increasingly common platforms in which individuals (and companies) are seeing damage being caused to their reputation.

Twitter and Blogs

In the case of James v Saunders [2019] EWHC 3265 (QB), the claimant worked for Sandwell Metropolitan Borough Council and was an active member of the Labour party. In a series of one tweet and four blog posts from January to August 2018, the defendant repeatedly referred to the claimant as a “bully” and an “evil wench”. A blog post by the defendant also stated:

Labour Sandwell Council mysteriously gave then a council house thanks to the direct intervention of Councillor X (a very close associate of Tom Watson MP.) Certainly SMBC are shown as the owner of the house at HM Land Registry! Hope with all their money they weren’t on the waiting list too long!”

Mrs Justice Steyn agreed with the Claimant that the words in their natural and ordinary meant that the reader would infer that “The Claimant corruptly obtained a council house by exploiting her political connections” and that “The Claimant is a vicious bully”.

The Defendant argued that the posts were merely her opinion, however the court disagreed and said they were clearly statements of fact and not opinion. The ordinary reader would assume from reading the tweet and blog posts that the defendant was making statements of fact and therefore the posts were defamatory as they were not true.

Facebook

In the case of Stocker v Stocker involving ex-spouses, Ms Stocker posted on Facebook to Mr Stocker’s new partner that he had “tried to strangle me” in an incident that had allegedly taken place in 2003. Mr Stocker argued that by using the word “strangle”, Ms Stocker had implied that he had tried to kill her; something that Ms Stocker denied she intended to mean.

The case proceeded to the Supreme Court where the court noted that Facebook users do not apply close analysis to the meaning of individual words. The ordinary user of Facebook does not “pause and reflect”  and their “reaction to the post is impressionistic and fleeting”. The ordinary user would have assumed force was applied to her neck but not that there was intent to kill her. The court questioned the fact that had she intended to mean that he had tried to kill her, presumably she would have said so directly.

Analysis

The Court’s approach to defamation claims in recent years with the increased use of social media has therefore been to analyse the new “ordinary reader” and assess how their interpretation of social media posts, which is often quick and “at a glance” differs from the reader of a book or perhaps a broadsheet newspaper article, which will be considered in more depth and therefore assumed that the reader will allow more time to analyse the meaning of the words.


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