Defamation in 140 characters

Courtney Love has been sued for defamation on Twitter. The Cleveland Leader has reported as follows (you can find many more reports and articles here):

Designer Dawn Simorangkir is suing Love for six counts – libel, invasion of privacy-false light, intentional interference with a prospective economic advantage, intentional infliction of emotional distress, and two breach of contract charges.

This follows Love’s long rants about Etsy.com, a website for artists selling handmade goods, and the designer herself.

Simorangkir claims that in 2008 Love approached her about designing clothes. Love even flew the designer and her husband out to LA from their home in Austin, TX. In February 2009, they started falling out after Simorangkir asked for payment for a custom-made dress that the singer had ordered.

Love apparently raged on Twitter about the designer. I haven’t been able to locate her tweet so I can’t tell you what the content of the tweet was. Suffice to say it was apparently insulting enough for Simorangkir to sue.

At first this seems a little ridiculous. Twitter is a messaging platform where users publish messages or status updates (depending on their preference) in 140 characters or less. Twitter has fast become the preferred communication channel for millions of individuals and businesses. Although the functionality is very limited, by design, the service is tremendously popular and has begun to enter mainstream consciousness due to a number of celebrities tweeting. These celebrities include Love who presently has around 6 221 followers.

Leaving aside the brevity of the typical Twitter post it is important to consider a Twitter user’s potential reach. Many of the applications which interface with Twitter allow users to republish, or “retweet”, Twitter posts to their users. It isn’t difficult to imagine the effect of a defamatory tweet published and republished to thousands, tens of thousands or even hundreds of thousands of users on Twitter alone. A number of Twitter users republish their tweets on other social networking platforms automatically. These platforms include Facebook, FriendFeed and their personal blogs and static websites.

If you take into account the users or visitors who frequent those sites and who may pass those tweets along to their followers and contacts there is the potential for a single 140 character tweet to reach a substantial number of people and do irreparable harm to the person defamed.

People who have been defamed on Twitter should consider contacting Twitter and reporting it to them. Twitter’s terms of service do state that Twitter may remove content they find meets certain criteria:

We reserve the right to alter these Terms of Use at any time. If the alterations constitute a material change to the Terms of Use, we will notify you via internet mail according to the preference expressed on your account. What constitutes a “material change” will be determined at our sole discretion, in good faith and using common sense and reasonable judgement.

What is clear is that even short form publications like Twitter posts should not be underestimated.

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