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Retweeting Defamatory Tweet: Legal Consequences

In the modern era of technology, social media sites provide us with the ability to quickly and easily express our thoughts and viewpoints. While this may seem beneficial, it also presents potential dangers. Unplanned remarks that are shared without being reviewed can invite scrutiny, not just from the general public, but also from law enforcement. The simplicity of spreading information can result in unforeseen outcomes, underscoring the importance of carefully considering the potential consequences before posting.

One thing to bear in mind is that if you retweet defamatory content, you are essentially republishing it on your followers' news feeds. The person you unknowingly help character assassinate might not even be aware of it. Indian law defines defamation as any statement that injures the reputation of a person by imputing to him or her any alleged conduct, matter, fact, or anything whatsoever which exposes them to hatred, contempt, or ridicule. But equally so, retweeting can be interpreted as giving consent to the post, and thus it can lead to the responsibility for defamation held together by both parties.

The issue of being sued for retweeting defamatory content is determined by several aspects. One of them is the substance of the tweet itself and its core issues, which are material to determining whether you could be successfully sued or not. In that vein, it will be based on whether there is a defamatory statement that is objectively true, yet containing false information against somebody's reputation so that you could fall into trouble with being liable; however, if it only makes a comment or claims a statement without any malice, then it does not constitute defamation.

It is the second point that indicates the relevance of your knowledge and intentions. So, you may have a defence if you did not know that the content was defamatory when you retweeted it. Nonetheless, proving ignorance can be difficult, especially where the defamatory content was apparent or due diligence was lacking before sharing.

In addition, the legal jurisdiction's domain is also relevant. Indian states have distinct views on defamation laws, and therefore, it is important to be aware of the specific legal landscape that applies in your area.

Defamation & Information Technology Laws in India:

Defamation laws are followed and enforced in India through the Indian Penal Code (IPC) and the Code of Criminal Procedure (CrPC). Section 499 IPC treats defamation as a criminal offence, although civil law can also be utilized. It is true that retweeting someone's defamatory post on Twitter can indeed lead to a violation of laws with legal consequences.

In terms of penalties, if you are proven to have defamed someone, you might be subject to both criminal and civil sanctions. Criminal defamation may be punished by a sentence not exceeding two years, or by a fine, or both according to section 500 of the IPC. On the other hand, civil defamation can lead to pecuniary compensation being awarded in favour of the aggrieved party for damage caused to their reputation.

According to Section 69 of the Information Technology Act of 2000, the government has the authority to intercept, monitor, or decode any data produced, transmitted, received, or stored in a computer system if it is deemed necessary or appropriate to uphold the sovereignty or integrity of India, protect the nation's defence, ensure state security, maintain friendly relations with other countries, preserve public order, or prevent the instigation of any punishable offense.

The Information Technology Act, 2000, in Section 69A, grants the Government the authority to restrict public access to information in certain circumstances, including:

  1. protection of India's sovereignty and integrity,
  2. defence of the country,
  3. security of the state
  4. maintenance of friendly relations with foreign nations,
  5. preservation of public order, or
  6. prevention of incitement to commit any cognizable offense related to the aforementioned conditions.
Court Judgments:
In the case of Riley and others v Heybroek, it was ruled that individuals who share defamatory tweets could be held liable for defamation. This ruling highlights the importance of being cautious when using social media and urges individuals to think twice before reposting content that could be harmful. With the potential legal consequences of retweeting, this case serves as a strong reminder to act responsibly and thoughtfully online. It emphasizes the significance of comprehending the potential consequences of retweeting and the need to verify the accuracy and nature of content before sharing it.

After examining the Kejriwal Case, the Delhi High Court concluded that sharing material on Twitter that is considered defamatory and passing it off as one's own opinion can result in legal repercussions under Section 499 of the IPC, leading to a summons being issued. The court recognized that even though the petitioner may argue that there was no ill intent in retweeting, they must consider the responsibility that comes with their position in the political and social sphere. The court's evaluation also took into account the considerable following on social media that a Chief Minister possesses, which amplifies the impact of any retweet and essentially makes it a public endorsement or acknowledgement.

The 2017 legal dispute between Jack Monroe and Katie Hopkins involved food blogger Monroe suing columnist Hopkins for defamation after a tweet was posted accusing Monroe of defacing a war memorial. The tweet gained significant traction through retweets, leading to the revelation that individuals who retweet defamatory material can also be held accountable if it is proven to be detrimental to someone's character.

The case of Monir v. Wood (2020) involved a defamation claim arising from the retweeting of a defamatory post. The court's decision stated that the defendant could be held accountable for defamation if they were aware or had reason to believe that the post was false and could harm the plaintiff's reputation. This case serves as a reminder of the legal ramifications of sharing defamatory content on social media, emphasizing the need for caution and careful consideration in online interactions to prevent harm to others' reputations.

Defences against retweet of defamatory tweet:

In the Indian legal scenario, there are a number of defences that a person can claim when accused of defaming someone by simply retweeting a tweet that is already defamatory in nature. These defences help establish legal rights for individuals who may not have been aware that the content they retweeted was defamatory. Some key defences include:
  • When you tweet something true and can demonstrate its truthfulness, this becomes a barrier to defamation claims against the content of the initial tweet. Thus, if you retweet a tweet that contains factual information, it might serve as your defence against defamation allegations.
  • In my opinion, expressions of opinion generally fall under the purview of defamation law where an opinion is a subjective statement and its veracity cannot be determined. If a tweet indicates personal expression rather than a claim about factual material, then it is not possibly defamatory. Still, one must be aware that even statements masked as opinions but holding concealed defamatory facts might not fall within this safety zone.
  • A defence that can be used for a statement concerning public interest is fair comment. When the tweet contains an opinion about a matter of public concern, expressed in good faith and not with malice, then it is likely to protect against defamation claims. This defence mainly applies to political, social, or cultural matters.
  • It is known that innocent dissemination is an exemption from liability and concerns a person who does not know that he or she spread the defamation without awareness of the information's defamatory properties. If you are able to show that you did not have any reason to think that the defamatory nature of the tweet was true and you were just a transmitter, then you may avoid responsibility.
  • One of the main elements in any defamation case is malice, which involves the intention to damage someone's reputation. In order to avoid defamatory content on Twitter, you need to prove that your retweet was done with no spite or ill-will towards a tweet's subject; if such an argument can be shown, it could be used as a possible defence.
  • Defamation privilege, however, can be invoked when the communication involved is protected by privilege from defamation. Examples of such privileged communications may include those made in the course of judicial proceedings, legislative debates, or even official communications by public officials. If the retweeted content falls within the scope of a privileged communication, you may be protected from defamation claims.
  • To be protected from defamation claims, it may sometimes help as a defence against defamation to retweet a defamatory tweet in the public interest; provided that the retweet concerns an issue of considerable public importance or interest and you can substantiate it by showing that the retweet was made bona fide and with the intention of benefiting society at large.
The accessibility and usefulness of these strategies might differ significantly based on the particulars of a case or the governing legal regime. If you face a defamation issue, it would be prudent to consult with an experienced attorney specializing in defamation law to develop an effective defence strategy tailored to your specific circumstances. Also, being proactive and double-checking information before retweeting, as well as exercising caution while sharing content that could be potentially defamatory, can help you avoid facing defamation claims in the future.

Risk of defamatory re-tweets can be avoided by being careful about what content is shared on social media platforms, thus reducing the risk of getting sued for defamation. Prior to sharing any information, make sure it's verified and also refrain from supporting or spreading anything that can be defamatory. Also, bear in mind the possible effects of your actions and the legal aspects connected with retweeting or any other kind of online sharing. These steps can help to avoid legal difficulties as well as protect not only you but also others' reputation.

Written By: Md.Imran Wahab, IPS, IGP, Provisioning, West Bengal
Email: [email protected], Ph no: 9836576565

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