Internet

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.

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  1. twibel

    [grumble grumble]

  2. Portmanteau is blowin’ up, yo.

  3. It’s just a bunch of twidiocy.

  4. “Who said sleeping in a moldy apartment was bad for you? Horizon realty thinks it’s okay.”

    Clearly an opinion of Horizon’s position, and therefore not libel. Case closed.

    1. Clearly implying that Horizon’s apartments are rife with mold due to their negligence. IANAL, so I don’t know how obvious implications are generally treated under libel law, but that’s the obvious implication, FWIW.

      1. You know, you have a point. Truth is NOT always a defense to libel. There is nothing inherently false in the allegedly libelous statement. There’s no way that Horizon warrants that all of its apartments are free of any and all mold, whether harmless or not, so its actions demonstrate that it is “OK” with sleeping moldy apartments, and the science would back them up, i.e., there’s nothing wrong with sleeping in an apartment that has a small, isolated amount of mold in the fridge. As such, the statement is unequivocally true.

        However, by throwing the alleged “implications” into the mix, i.e., adding somebody else’s interpretation to the actual statement, we can come up with a scenario in which truth does not bar recovery for libel.

  5. Truth is not always a defense in a libel action, but it’s a pretty strong motivator to acquit.

    It’s been over three years since I graduated law school, so maybe I’m forgetting something. As such, I’ll go ahead and ask the question… when exactly is truth not a defense to libel?

    1. when exactly is truth not a defense to libel?

      When you’re in Britain.

      1. See above, when “libel-by-implication” is the adopted law of the state. They can basically tell the person who made the statement that they meant something different than what they actually said.

  6. I still love the Despair.com poster for “blogging” which I think equally applies to twitter as well…

    “Never before have so many people with so little to say said so much to so few.”

  7. “when exactly is truth not a defense to libel?”

    Truth is always a ‘defense’ to libel.

  8. “You’ll know Twitter has jumped the shark when people stop getting themselves into trouble with it.”

    Have people ever stopped getting themselves into trouble when they should know better?

  9. I know nothing about libel. What is the difference between this case and an apartment hunting website where people write reviews?

  10. The sad part is, they probably could have taken care of the mold problem for less than they will pay the lawyers.

  11. Truth is not always a defense in a libel action,

    That’s funny; I had a Business Law professor who liked to say, “It’s only libel if it isn’t true.”

  12. Truth is not a libel defense.

    If I know something truthful and negative about you, can I go and broadcast that to everyone, for no reason but to be malicious?

    Such an act could open you to libel – unless said broadcast was shown to be in the interest of those i’m broadcasting to.

    That doesn’t even get into half-truths.

    For instance, in this case, what if the mould was indeed present, but innocuous – bad example, but sticking with the one at hand.

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

    Who is Horizon? Horizon Organics? Horizon Air? Horizon Blue Cross/Blue shield of NJ ?

    It isn’t obvious from this tweet that they are talking about a company named Horizon Group Management that does property management for their building.

    I dunno the context of the tweets, or if there were other tweets in conjunction with this one, but standing alone this tweet doesn’t make it clear who the target of the criticism is, nor that they are talking specifically about properties that Horizon Group Management manages.

    It seems pretty vague, and without some other knowledge of this person’s situation an observer couldn’t be sure what this is about.

    Oh and don’t libel lawsuits also demand that the plaintiff show that there were actual damages/harm caused by the tweet…which in this case would be awfully hard to do — in fact Horizon’s lawsuit probably got themselves much more negative attention than the tweet ever would have by itself.

    1. “realty”. Narrows it down a bit, eh?

      1. Narrows it down to a bunch of Horizon Realty’s.

        http://www.horizonrealty.org/ (not the one suing the tweetrix – the correct Horizon Realty is the third choice on google).

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  15. well, to be frank i can understand the last part clearly, would u mind explain a bit?

  16. It is been above three years because I graduated law school, so perhaps I’m forgetting something. As this kind of, I’ll go ahead and ask the query… when precisely is truth not a defense to libel?

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