Judges told to consider "viral tweets" in libel damages

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Lord Chief Justice rules the "viral effect" of tweets should be taken into account in libel damages

The potentially "viral" effect of defamatory statements made on Twitter should be taken into account when awarding damages, the Court of Appeal has ruled.

In what could be a significant judgement for defamation cases involving social networks, the Lord Chief Justice ruled that it is fair for judges to consider whether a rumour may "go viral" when propagated on services such as Twitter.

The court was hearing an appeal involving the New Zealand cricketer, Chris Cairns, who was falsely accused of match fixing on Twitter.

Defamatory statements are objectionable not least because of their propensity to percolate through underground channels and contaminate hidden springs

The Court of Appeal was asked to consider whether it was appropriate for the judge in the case to "have had regard to the capacity for the story in question to 'go viral' via the Twitter site and the internet generally", according to a law report published in today's Times.

The Lord Chief Justice backed the judge in the Cairns case, citing a dictum that was made in an infamous defamation case brought against the BBC in 1990 - 16 years before Twitter was even founded - in which the Corporation was held liable for derogatory remarks that were repeated by newspapers.

In that Slipper vs BBC case, Lord Justice Bingham stated that "defamatory statements are objectionable not least because of their propensity to percolate through underground channels and contaminate hidden springs".

The Lord Chief Justice added that it "was obvious that today, with the ready availability of the world wide web and of social networking sites, the scale of the problem had been immeasurably enhanced, especially for libel claimants who were already, for whatever reason, in the public eye".

That ruling may give heart to Lord McAlpine, who is currently pursuing a libel action against Sally Bercow for comments made on Twitter. Ms Bercow, the wife of the speaker of the House of Commons, made reference to Lord McAlpine in a tweet shortly after he was wrongly identified as being involved in child abuse.

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