There’s a Sheriff in Dodge City

Social media can be a seductive environment. It can seem intimate, private, just you and a few friends chatting and joking. But the moment you go into writing, the same laws of libel apply that might apply to anything else you publish.

The High Court judgement in the Cairns v Modi case just a couple of days ago,  saw the happily anarchic world of Twitter brought suddenly face to face with harsh legal reality . Here former IPL Commissioner Lalit Modi was held to account for his Twitter post claiming that former New Zealand cricket star Chris Cairns had been barred from the IPL because of his “past record in match-fixing”.  The High Court found that Mr Modi had “singularly failed” to provide any reliable evidence against the cricketer, and slapped him with a £90,000 damages bill, and an even more eye-watering £400,000 in costs.

For many people, this will be a reassuring reminder that the world of social media is not the wild west.  Laws do prevail. There’s a sheriff in town. When a business faces a Twitter storm of rumour and allegation, there are a number of possible strategies to deploy, and one of these most certainly is the legal option. But that said, it’s never a good move to launch a legal assault to protect your reputation without very careful reputation management processes as part of your strategy.  That’s as true with social media as it is in the off-line world.

But the Cairns v Modi case should also set a few gentle alarm bells ringing for some businesses.  In the last year or two, as the commercial world has come to recognise the importance of social media, more and more companies have launched themselves onto Twitter and Facebook.  But as they have done so, a slightly odd characteristic has emerged.  Where most articles and public statements emerging from the organisation are subject to careful scrutiny and double-checking, very often social media activity is delegated to an individual, or a small group of individuals, who chatter and twitter away  in a state of happy and informal autonomy.  There may be few, if any, of the normal checks and safeguards that apply to the company’s other pronouncements.  And yet, the topics for social media debate are often the most contentious and sensitive of the all the issues the business might be facing.

Perhaps the simple message of Cairns v Modi is this:  Twitter and Facebook are part of the “real world”, and that means accountability and liability. The Law has come to Dodge City.