Civil Liberties

Twibel

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"Are Twitter messages a stream of opinion and hyperbole that shouldn't be taken seriously, or a serious form of communication that can expose users to defamation and libel claims?"

Yes.

Karen Sloan reports on a defamation case in which a Chicago property management company sued a tenant who tweeted about mold in her apartment:

"When one considers [25-year-old defendant Amanda] Bonnen's allegedly defamatory tweet in the social context and setting in which the statement was published, its nature as rhetorical hyperbole is readily apparent," the motion [from Bonnen's lawyers] said.

Horizon responded that Twitter content isn't mere drivel, but rather a "legitimate medium used by reporters to report up-to-the-minute updates on legal actions, by rabbis, by people to support specific causes or engage in a certain activity, and as a marketing tool." The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, for example, uses Twitter to disseminate information, the company argued. Tweets, it said, should be treated no differently than other forms of publication.

Cook Country, Ill., circuit judge Diane J. Larsen dismissed Horizon Group Management's suit, heeding Bonnen's legal team's argument that cited among other things a "2009 study of Twitter in which more than 40% of tweets were found to be 'pointless babble.'"

Twitter -- one year we all went retarded.

I'd put that percentage much higher (clearly these people haven't spent much time hanging out at #willgetyourejected or #thoughtsonthetoilet), but as for the case at hand, there's something more serious than babble. Bonnen made or very strongly implied a factual claim in her tweet, which reads:

"Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it's okay."

Truth is not always a defense in a libel action, but it's a pretty strong motivator to acquit. So was there mold in the apartment or not? If there wasn't, Bonnen's tweet pretty clearly fits the definition of "false and malicious" publication, and a reputable business has a complaint.

Sloan says the tweet in question "went viral" (which in current usage means, I believe, "was seen by more than 99 people"), but the size of the audience is not a major factor in building a libel action. In any event, fully empowered women Kim Kardashian and Courtney Love have both been sued over potentially defamatory tweets.

As these and other twibel cases work themselves out, part of Twitter's glorious stupidity may be lost: It's a strictly broadcast model of communication, one that makes it more likely your post will be seen by everybody than by anybody in particular. And yet you have countless oversharing sad sacks out there treating it as if it's a medium for having a heart-to-heart with a neighbor or a relative. You'll know Twitter has jumped the shark when people stop getting themselves into trouble with it.