Wonderful though mobile phones are, there are two ways in which they can land you in front of a judge. One is by using one in your hand while you are driving. The other is to use one to make allegations against other people via social media which would be regarded by the law as defamatory as media lawyer Jonathan Coad explains.

The first person to learn about the perils of ill-judged use of social media via her phone was Sally Bercow, the wife of the Speaker of the House of Commons, who was forced to pay out a large sum of money for having tweeted a defamatory allegation of paedophilia about a conservative peer, Lord McAlpine. The controversial, now ex-columnist, Katie Hopkins also paid a heavy price in damages and costs for libelling the food blogger Jack Monroe via an ill-judged tweet which eventually resulted in the loss of her home. I have acted for a number of celebrity clients whom I have had to rescue from the consequences of reckless social media posting, especially when they have been picked up by the commercial media.

And that is the crux of it. Sitting opposite a friend in your local pub and pouring scorn on a mutual subject of dislike amounts to slander (i.e. there is no permanence to the words used).Unfortunately, when you say the same thing via social media using your mobile phone, tablet or laptop, what you say then gains a permanence, making the very same words libellous. Slander actions are much harder to bring and so are rare. Libel actions where the words said, their author and the time at which they were communicated are all readily provable, are relatively easy to bring.

The problem is that we tend to have the same attitude to casual gossip when engaged in a social setting and communicating our views to large numbers via the various social media platforms via the various electronic devices which are now ubiquitous. Tweets can, of course, be retweeted, which makes the risks greater. A casual slander at a café is a generally safe exercise; the grinding of an axe via social media is far less so.

This was the sharp lesson recently learnt by Thameslink, where its tweeted response to a complaint about its service said; “Very sorry Kevin. Appreciate at the moment the service is less Ferrero Rocher and more Poundland cooking chocolate.” Unsurprisingly, Poundland took issue with the tweet, and has apparently threatened legal action. This would be either a claim for defamation, on the basis that an allegation about Poundland chocolate amounts to an allegation about Poundland or would be a Malicious Falsehood, also known as Trade Libel, where a tradesperson whose product has been maligned by another trader can go to a court and seek redress.

If Poundland was well advised, it will be satisfied with the positive media coverage which it has enjoyed from a single tweet cruelly attacking its chocolate, which I am sure is delicious, and not sue Thameslink. That said, I have just been instructed by a corporate client to issue proceedings against an individual who has posted a series of tweets which are libellous, and he will pay a financial penalty for making allegations which are both damaging and unfounded.

If you want to use social media safely, then the surest way of so doing is not to mount attacks on anyone. If you do feel the need to do so, then always stay within the bounds of what is already being said in the commercial media because if you do, it is unlikely that you are going to be on the wrong end of a libel action.

This article is for general information purposes only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. It should not be used as a substitute for legal advice relating to your particular circumstances. Please note that the law may have changed since the date of this article.