Medium Or Message

Thanks to my darling daughter Katie for bringing this piece to my attention. It discusses the dismissal of a libel lawsuit in Illinois. The lawsuit arose from Twitter tweets the defendant sent out concerning the condition of rental property in Chicago. The real estate company was particularly upset about a tweet that suggested its apartments were “moldy” and that it didn’t care. The interesting question is whether the dismissal resulted from the content of the tweet from the fact that the defendant used Twitter as the medium. If the tweets were opinion or hyperbole, they would not be defamatory regardless of how they were transmitted. But the defendant apparently argued in court papers that the very fact that the message was on Twitter made it opinion in the social context. It cited a 2009 study which found that 40% of tweets were considered “pointless babble” (editor’s note – in my experience, that percentage depends on who is tweeting). I’m not sure what Twitter (Twitter was not a party to the litigation) would say about that. On the one hand, it could be a sales point to tell users that they are essentially immune from libel liability. On the other hand, I doubt Twitter feels good about getting to that result because tweets constitute “pointless babble.” And it’s increasing clear that users, including old line businesses (see yesterday’s post “Social Media is Officially a Big Deal”) are sending fact based, information bits that clearly are not opinion or hyperbole. I suspect that ultimately courts will focus on the message and not the medium. The U.S. Supreme Court essentially adopted this approach in the Milkovich case in 1990. There, the court focused on whether the statement itself constituted a statement of fact. It rejected the argument that the context in which the statement appeared – i.e an “opinion column” — was a factor. As social media becomes more familiar, I suspect courts will apply familiar rules. But that’s just my opinion.