The Katie Hopkins ‘Twibel’ ruling: the law comes to town in Twitter’s Wild West

In one of the first cases to define the ‘serious harm’ threshold in defamation law, outspoken Katie Hopkins has been ordered to pay £24,000 in damages to Jack Monroe for libellous tweets, in which she implied the prominent poverty campaigner had defaced a war memorial.

Hopkins has said she will appeal. It is not yet known whether she will be granted leave or will be successful, but this is an important decision – it sets out what ‘serious harm’ to reputation means in the online sphere, even in circumstances where the tweet in question was deleted a few hours after publication.

Millicent Freeman

While the tweets were not considered to be “very serious” or “grave”, Mr Justice Warby ruled that the publications had caused serious harm to Monroe’s reputation in the eyes of third parties, and had therefore met the threshold set by the Defamation Act 2013.

Ms Hopkins’ argument that the threshold had not been met, as those few who abused Monroe in the aftermath of the tweets complained of were people whose opinions were already set in stone, was rejected by the court. A person can have a low opinion of another, and “yet the other’s reputation can be harmed by a fresh defamatory allegation”.

While the tweet was deleted around two hours after first publication, the judge noted that that “what matters… is not the period of time for which a person is exposed to the message but the impact the message has”.

In her response, Hopkins’ team argued that Twitter is the “Wild West” of social media, and not as authoritative as print media. They suggested that allowance should be made for a platform which is seen as a free-for-all, and less credible than (for instance) The Sun or the Daily Mail.

The court widely rejected this argument as Hopkins is a well-known figure, whose tweets should be held to the same standard as her publications in other ‘more serious’ print media. This may cause difficulties for those in the public eye who use Twitter as a forum to present their outspoken, at times controversial, opinions to the detriment of others -potentially even if they are published in jest.

This case also highlights the value of proper contrition and prompt apology once a mistake has been recognised – in this case, Hopkins’ apparent mistaken identity of Monroe for New Statesman columnist Laurie Penny. Costs might have been avoided had Hopkins admitted the error and expressed regret as soon as she was told the tweet was incorrect.

Rather, Monroe claimed, Hopkins simply “switched her line of attack” and made what she saw as a “deliberate call to arms”. As Mark Lewis, lawyer for Monroe, noted, “the price of not saying sorry has been very high”.

In any event, this case is a salient reminder to those who abuse others online that they will be held accountable for their actions. Twitter is not the “Wild West” Hopkins wishes it to be. Take care before you tweet, as the laws of the land apply just as much to the fast-moving world of Twitter as they do to more ‘serious’ media publications.

Millicent Freeman is a solicitor at Mishcon de Reya.