In this age of social media, most people are now aware that there can be serious legal consequences to something as seemingly innocuous as an ill-advised Tweet. But you would be forgiven for thinking that you couldn’t be held liable for a Tweet that you hadn’t even written, yet that is precisely what happened in the case of Zahir Monir v Steve Wood.
In the run up to the 2015 general election, a Tweet was sent from the Twitter account of the UKIP Bristol branch which was intended to discredit a Labour party candidate, but which also included an entirely false allegation of serious criminal conduct against Zahir Monir, a Labour supporter.
The Tweet was written by John Langley, the then Vice-Chairman of the UKIP Bristol branch, without the knowledge or approval of the then Chairman, Steve Wood.
The prospects of recovering anything from Mr Langley (a self-described “maverick” who had already attracted negative publicity for other racist Tweets as well as his sideline as an adult film producer and actor) were low, so Mr Monir decided to pursue his libel claim against Mr Wood only, arguing that Mr Wood was ultimately responsible for the publication of the defamatory Tweet.
Although Mr Wood had not written or approved the Tweet, he had set up the @BristolUKIP Twitter account, and it was registered using his email address. As such, the High Court ruled that Mr Wood had the ability to control or restrict who had access to the Twitter account, and although he had delegated the responsibility for its day-to-day operation to Mr Langley, Mr Wood had retained “ultimate control” over the Twitter account.
On that basis, the High Court ruled that Mr Wood was legally liable for the Tweet written by Mr Langley, because Mr Langley had been acting as Mr Wood’s “agent” when he was posting material (including the defamatory Tweet) using the UKIP Bristol branch Twitter account.
That would have been bad enough for Mr Wood, but given that he had not written or approved the defamatory Tweet, if Mr Wood had taken swift action to delete the Tweet after Mr Monir brought it to his attention, then perhaps the Court may have taken a more sympathetic approach towards Mr Wood.
Instead, Mr Wood made a bad situation even worse for himself by failing to take Mr Monir’s complaint seriously and dismissing it without proper investigation. As the person with ultimate control over the Twitter account, Mr Wood could have easily deleted the Tweet as soon as he became aware of it, but because he initially refused to do so, the High Court ruled that Mr Wood had effectively ratified the Tweet and authorised its continued publication from that point onwards.
As a result, the defamatory Tweet remained publicly available online for almost a month (until Mr Wood was asked by the police to delete the Tweet). To compound his initial stubbornness, Mr Wood then refused throughout the court proceedings to issue an apology or correction via the @BristolUKIP Twitter account, arguing that he didn’t have to because he had done nothing wrong and wasn’t responsible for a Tweet written by someone else.
Due to the serious nature of the false allegations of criminal conduct made against Mr Monir in the Tweet, the High Court was satisfied that its publication had caused “serious harm” to Mr Monir’s reputation.
The High Court also stressed that although the number of people who had seen the Tweet and recognised Mr Monir was likely to be “very limited”, those who had seen it and recognised him had been people that Mr Monir knew from his local area (including his next-door neighbour), causing him “genuine fear and distress”.
The High Court was also highly critical of “the intransigence of Mr Wood and his refusal publicly to apologise and to withdraw the allegation”, saying that even if Mr Wood was adamant that he had done nothing wrong and was not responsible for Mr Langley’s Tweet, he should still “recognise the harm that has been caused and do what one can to remedy it”. The High Court ruled that Mr Wood’s “mean-spirited stance”, “stubbornness and self-confidence” had substantially increased the hurt and stress suffered by Mr Monir.
In light of Mr Wood’s conduct, the High Court considered it appropriate to order Mr Wood to pay £40,000 in damages to Mr Monir.
Although the facts of this case may seem quite specific, there are some clear lessons that can be applied generally.
First and foremost, it is clear that a Twitter account holder can be held liable for any libellous Tweets published on their account but written by someone else, provided that the account holder retains ultimate control over the account, and has authorised the third party to use the account. This could have wide-ranging implications for any organisation where access to a Twitter account is delegated internally.
Secondly, this case serves as a timely reminder that taking swift and immediate action to remove defamatory material once you become aware of it is critical to limiting to your legal liability. Mr Wood was lucky that the damages award wasn’t higher (the High Court confirmed that an award of £250,000 or more would have been appropriate had the libel been published in a national newspaper), but the damages awarded would likely have been considerably less than £40,000 had Mr Wood immediately deleted the Tweet and issued a public apology as soon as he was made aware of it.
This article is provided for information purposes only and does not constitute legal advice. Professional legal advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the contents of this article.