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Tweeters beware!

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Mr Justice Warby has ordered that opinionated journalist Katy Hopkins must pay fellow Twitter user Jack Monroe £24,000 to compensate for Hopkins’ defamatory tweets. Monroe v Hopkins [2017] EWHC 433 (QB), is the first case to consider the new “serious harm” test under section 1 of the Defamation Act 2013 in a social media context.

The defamatory statements were in the form of two 140 character tweets posted in May 2015. New Stateman columnist Laurie Penny, under the Twitter alias @PennyRed,tweeted a photograph of a vandalised WWII memorial along with a political statement. 9 days later, Hopkins mistakenly tagged Monroe in response to Penny’s tweet and stated “@MsJackMonroe scrawled on any memorials recently? Vandalised the memory of those who fought for your freedom. Grandma got any more medals?” Monroe replied denying the insinuation and later asked Hopkins to delete the tweet, apologise and donate £5,000 to charity. Hopkins deleted the tweet, but tweeted later that evening asking someone to explain to her the “difference between irritant @PennyRed and social anthrax @MsJackMonroe”. Hopkins did not delete this tweet.

The Judge held that the first tweet had a tendency to cause Monroe harm to her reputation, of a kind that would be serious for her. The tweet would cause a hypothetical reader of Twitter to believe that Monroe had sprayed graffiti on public monuments and “right-thinking people” would consider this obnoxious behaviour.

For the non-tweeters amongst us, the “@” symbol is used to “tag” a user, causing the tweet to appear on the tagged user’s Twitter page, along with the page of the author of the tweet. Users are able to share the tweeted statement, which republishes the tweet. A statement therefore has the potential to be widely published in a matter of seconds, regardless of the author’s approval.

It may be argued that Twitter provides a platform to exercise one’s right to freedom of expression, a right set out in article 10 of the European Convention on Human Rights and hotly debated in recent years as a result of the Leveson Inquiry. Experienced tweeters might consider derogatory and libellous statements common place and fair game on Twitter. However, the ruling cautions users that a Tweet that causes “serious harm” to reputation, whether or not intentional, could cause the author to pay a hefty sum by way of damages and costs to the individual in the firing line. Hopkins has already been ordered to pay £107,000 on account of costs to Monroe.

Twitter users should proceed with caution and think twice before they click “Tweet”. Care should also be given to any hyperlinks, photographs and videos attached to the tweet.