Thursday, 16 August 2012

Into the Twitterverse

For many lawyers of a certain age, Twitter is baffling. To be fair, it’s not just lawyers who are perplexed by the 140-character publishing phenomenon that is Twitter. Many people of middle age and beyond find Twitter incomprehensible too; including myself until relatively recently I have to confess. Why, they ask, would anyone want to share thoughts that are, by definition, on the minimalist side – and who on earth is interested?

A cursory glance at some Twitter statistics provides ammunition against the opponents. Stephen Fry has over 4.5 million followers; as of 15 August, @BBCBreaking (BBC Breaking News) could boast of 3,824,931 followers. From celebrities to news channels, then, Twitter has emerged as a viable – in fact, vital – means of disseminating their message and generating interest in either their lives (we can all know what Mr Fry had for breakfast, if we wish) or what they have to say. Needless to say, companies have seen value in Twitter, too: organisations from Google Inc to Starbucks have developed a strong Twitter presence, with legions of followers.

At Spencers we haven’t been resistant to Twitter, but it’s fair to say that we haven’t utilised it as much as we should. Not any more: look out for plenty of tweets from yours truly from now on. I think Twitter is a great way of conveying news and information about developments in the PI legal sector, from referral fees to plans to extend the RTA Portal. Please take a look at @SpencerSols and @JohnSpencerLaw for more.

Meantime, for those of you who may also have been slow to Twitter but now see its value, I’ve been brushing up on my media law. There are a number of pitfalls to be wary of, and here, indeed, one can see the difference between the generations. People of my age, whether legally qualified or not, will readily understand that legal liability could flow from the misuse of software like Twitter, while the younger (especially teenage) generation probably have little or no idea of what could go wrong as a consequence of a poorly judged tweet. Here, then, are some guidelines.
  1. A tweet is subject to the law of libel. While my friends in media law tell me that this isn’t entirely settled law, it is generally agreed that a tweet has sufficient permanence to be regarded as publication in written form (rather than a verbal communication, which would be treated as slander). This means that something libellous – for example, saying that someone is a liar, or dishonest, or corrupt – could lead to the publisher being sued. The usual defences to defamation claims will apply, but if in doubt, don’t tweet.
  2. Tweets can fall foul of the Communications Act 2003, which prohibits the sending of grossly offensive communications or those of an indecent, obscene or menacing character. This provision was recently in the news with the conviction of Paul Chambers for sending a tweet saying “... I am blowing the airport sky high”. In a victory for common sense, Mr Chambers’ conviction was overturned, but persistently malicious or threatening tweeters won’t be so lucky. The moral is: don’t use Twitter to vent your fury.
  3. Likewise, don’t use Twitter to harass someone. Doing so on two or more occasions could amount to harassment under the Protection from Harassment Act 1997.
  4. If you intend to disclose personal or confidential information on Twitter, take care: the Data Protection Act 1998 may apply. For employees authorised by their employers to tweet, take care not to disseminate personal information about colleagues – and be careful, however upset  by your boss you may be, not to disparage your employer via Twitter. You would almost certainly be in breach of your employment contract.
  5. There are other ways in which Twitter could be misused. A tweet could amount to a misrepresentation, it could amount to a fraudulent statement, or it could be actionable as a malicious falsehood.

The bottom line is this: as with all social media, use your common sense. If you behave courteously and respectfully, you won’t break any laws. If you have something useful to say, you should find that you acquire followers who enhance your personal reputation or that of your business. If you can help people into the bargain – by keeping them up to date with developments in their sector and sharing information – so much the better. It’s this that we hope to do via @SpencerSols, so please take a look and let us know how we’re doing.

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