We’ve already had the Twitter joke trial, and a company suing an employee for taking his Twitter followers with him when he left. Now, what is thought to be the first Twitter libel case has been heard in England.
Yesterday, the former New Zealand cricketer, Chris Cairns, was awarded damages of £90,000 by the High Court after suing over a defamatory tweet by Lalit Modi, the deposed Indian Premier League commissioner.
In a tweet in January 2010, Modi said that Cairns had been barred from the IPL due to “his past record in match-fixing”. The comments were picked up by the popular cricket website CricInfo. After Cairns complained, CricInfo withdrew the article, apologised, and paid damages, but Modi has refused to apologise and maintained that his allegations were true.
It is worth noting that Modi did not have many followers on Twitter, meaning that the tweet was seen only by an estimated 65 people. The piece on Cricinfo was only online for a few hours, during which time it was seen by about 1,000 people.
While £90,000 might seem excessive for a libel seen by 1,100 people, the judge said that although publication was “limited” that did not mean that damages should be reduced, noting that “nowadays the poison tends to spread far more rapidly”.
This appears to suggest not only that defamation on social media will be taken as seriously as that in the mainstream media, but also that the potential for that reputational damage to spread — much greater in the digital age — will be a consideration. Yet again, this case demonstrates the difficulty inherent in applying laws created in a bygone era to new technologies and media. Social media entails a pull between public and private spheres: Twitter users may not think about the fact that when they communicate with their followers, they are in fact are publishing their thoughts to the whole internet. As the law around this area becomes concretised, people will have to review how they present themselves.
Clearly, in this case defamation was committed: Modi was unable to provide any evidence to back up his comments. The judge noted the serious nature of the libel:
It is obvious that an allegation that a professional cricketer is a match-fixer goes to the core attributes of his personality and, if true, entirely destroys his reputation for integrity. It is as serious an allegation as anyone could make against a professional sportsman.
For Cairn, who has played 62 Tests and 215 one-day matches for New Zealand over his 17 year career, it is a relief: “Today’s verdict lifts a dark cloud that has been over me for the past two years,” he said in a statement. For many of those using Twitter — a format which lends itself to rushed, thoughtless, and frequently vitriolic comments — it has implications about what they say and how they say it.