Being a Twitter user is a little bit like being a U.S. citizen. It’s a worthwhile and amazing privilege, but one that comes with responsibilities. In the case of tweeting, it means being truthful—or you may be in for a surprise.
Take the case of Amanda Bonnen, whose May 12 blog entry described her apartment as “moldy.” You can read about the case online at the The Huffington Post but, in short, Bonnen’s landlord, Horizon Group Management LLC, found out about her tweet and initiated a lawsuit for $50,000 for defamation. It’s anyone’s guess how the case will turn out, but in any event, there’s a lesson we can learn from it: we’re all responsible for what we say via any social network, on our Web sites and blogs, on chat boards, or on any other online venues.
This isn’t to suggest that anyone should refrain from using social media for fear of getting sued. It’s simply to say that while the medium is new, the rules of the road remain unchanged. The same transgressions that get you sued in the real world can get you into trouble on the Web. According to the Media Law Resource Center, a nonprofit information clearinghouse in New York, judgments against bloggers have topped $16 million. Who knows the monetary value of the cases that have been settled out of court.
To minimize your own risk, there are several things you should do. First, get the facts. Start by taking a look at the the Citizen Media Law Project’s Legal Guide. It’s written in plain English and is easy to digest (the section Publishing Information That Harms Another’s Reputation is particularly useful).
Second, exercise common sense. If you’re about to write or say something that you can’t imagine seeing on the front page of a newspaper or hearing on the air, don’t post it, blog it, Tweet it, or podcast it! Yes, the Net is quickly redefining all kinds of boundaries, but not as much as many people think. Decency, honesty, and integrity still prevail.
Finally, don’t assume that anything you post on a social networking site is a private communication. There aren’t any private communications on the Internet. Worse, the Net has a long institutional memory—what you post today can come back to haunt you many years in the future. (BTW, the Wayback Machine, a favorite tool of lawyers, has now archived more than 150 billion Web pages! Yours is probably among them.)
The bottom line is this: Tweet well. Post and blog wisely. Podcast as though your reputation depended on it. Because it does.