I think it's fair to say that historically, there has always been something of a sense that Twitter is the kind of forum in which you can basically say whatever you want, about whatever you want. The lack of accountability that many felt when signing up for a twitter account seemed to translate into a virtual reality where there was simply no need to watch what you said, as what you were saying wasn't really being 'published.' However, recently the tide has begun to turn against this idea that Twitter is simply a forum for opinion and that these opinions are above the law.
Last week we saw the culmination of a particularly public Twitter litigation concerning the wife of the House of Commons Speaker Sally Bercow who was accused of libelling peer Lord McAlpine in the wake of the BBC Newsnight report that wrongly linked the Conservative peer to sex abuse claims. The case against Bercow arose from Tweets that she posted on the subject, such as "Why is Lord McAlpine trending. *innocent face*" which it was alleged pointed the finger of blame squarely at Lord McAlpine.
Bercow's legal team had asserted that the question she posed in that offending tweet was entirely neutral and without malice and that she had not intended to libel anyone. However, the judge did not accept this, stating that because the tweet included the 'innocent face' it was 'ironical' and therefore was an accusation that Lord McAlpine had been a "paedophile who was guilty of sexually abusing boys living in care". Mr Justice Tugendhat found that this tweeting was indeed libellous and a settlement amount was reached.
The consequences for Sally Bercow have not been disclosed in terms of the settlement amount, but as the defamation claim launched by Lord McAlpine against the BBC was settled for £185,000, it's unlikely that Bercow has been let off particularly lightly. For many, there is a sense that this case has been used to make an example of someone high profile in order to discourage others from doing the same, and that it is part of a new momentum to curtail the freedom social media provides.
What is also interesting about the ruling is that now talk of Twitter in the media is in the context of tweets being 'published' rather than 'posted,' which wasn't formerly the case. This seems to be a reflection of a wider movement that is being spearheaded by decisions such as this one, in which social media sites are no longer just opinion forums, but are now considered to have the same status as if you were to publish a statement in a more traditional form of media, such as the print press.
Whilst not many of us make a habit of making these kinds of wild statements - particularly those who work within the law - can we all really say that we think before we post? If there is any lesson to be learned from Sally Bercow's situation it is that no matter how anonymous or unreachable you think you are via your Twitter account, if you wouldn't be happy to shout your tweet through a megaphone then don't post it online.
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