10 Ways To Avoid Being Sued On Twitter

Adrianos is an Internet Defamation attorney in Los Angeles and authors the California Defamation Law Blog. Follow him @adrianos.

Let me cut to the chase. You DO NOT want to be sued on Twitter.

Being sued already stinks enough. Trust me. I know all about this because I’m a lawyer and I sue people for a living (don’t hold it against me).

But being sued for a tweet is even worse.

First off, think of what your friends will say.  “Hi John, have you seen Bill lately?” “No, he was drunk-tweeting so he got sued.”  Imagine the harassment you’d experience at the hands of your buddies.  I shudder to even think about it!

Second, imagine what your customers will say when they read about it online and the headline reads, “Drunk Twit Gets Sued For Tweets.” Think they’re going to hire you again? Probably not.

Worst of all, you could lose your privilege to Tweet under Twitter’s Terms of Service. And that would mean the end of world undoubtedly.

So how do you avoid this?  I’m going to show you 10 basic ways to avoid being sued on Twitter. Now, most of this is common sense.  But, as you know, “common sense is not so common.” -Voltaire.  So let’s dive in.

1. Take Your Mother’s Advice

Remember when your mother told you not to say anything if you didn’t have anything nice to say. Well, (as usual) she was absolutely right! Say the wrong thing and you could be staring down the barrel of a defamation lawsuit. Do you want to get sued? I didn’t think so.

2. Avoid “Twitter Rage”/Blow Off Some Steam

I will be the first to admit that I’ve experienced what is known as “Twitter Rage.” This is what happens when I receive: (i) gobs of porno spam; (ii) block tweets (multiple tweets from the same person within a matter of seconds; and the ultra-nefarious (iii) auto-DM.

Sometimes I lash out at the offender with a particularly pointed public tweet. But in the majority of cases I’ll just block or un-follow the person and that’ll be enough to satisfy me. When the behavior is truly egregious, however, and I’ve had a really bad day (usually because of another lawyer) I find ways to blow off some steam.

I’ll usually go for a run or go to the gym and lift some weights. This typically does the trick. For you, it could be doing yoga or picking up the phone and calling a friend. Whatever it is, I highly recommend that you do something relaxing and totally unrelated to the tweet.

But if you insist on making negative comments about other people you should at least consider doing the following . . .

3. Send A Direct Message Instead of a Straight Tweet

Sending a direct message to the person instead of a public tweet is important for at least a couple of reasons. First, you may find that the person made a mistake. For example, I once chastised a person for sending 4 tweets in rapid-fire succession. I later learned that the person was using a third party application that went haywire. Boy was I glad that I sent that person a direct message and not a public tweet!

The second reason it’s important has to do with defamation law. You see, unless you communicate the message to a third person it will not be actionable as defamation. Lawyers call this “publication,” and it’s an indispensable element to a claim for defamation.

4. State Your Opinion Instead of a Factual Assertion

The First Amendment is a Twit’s best friend since it protects opinion. So all you have to do is tweet the magic words, “In my opinion . . . ” just before any statement, right? Wrong. What most people don’t know that is that an opinion can also get you in trouble for defamation if it implies a provably false assertion of fact. Basically, the court is going to look at all the circumstances surrounding the statement and then make a determination. So tread carefully here.

5. Don’t Use Your Name As Your Twitter Handle

The law values the right to anonymous speech. One of the best ways to remain anonymous on Twitter is to use an alias or a penname. Now, don’t get me wrong here. I am NOT advocating that you engage in any shenanigans.  All I’m saying is that if you are especially critical of a certain company or an individual, you may not want to use your name as your Twitter handle.

6. Check Your Sources

Factual assertions lead to lawsuits. Therefore, you must verify whether your factual assertions are accurate, if you are making any. And don’t rely on just any sources. Seek out credible and unbiased sources and keep a record of what you did to investigate the facts included in your tweet, if possible.

7. Lay Off The Booze

Not too long ago I thought I would be cool and tweet about my friend’s bachelor party. This could have lead to DISASTROUS results. Fortunately, a good friend persuaded me not to do it. Consequently, what happened in Vegas stayed in Vegas. Bottom line: don’t drink and tweet (not even a glass of wine, it’s just not worth it).

8. Don’t Violate Copyright Laws

This is pretty simple. Just don’t do it. Twitter takes this very seriously. They even have a special email address an aggrieved copyright owner can use to contact Twitter: copyright@twitter.com

9. Don’t Violate Trademark Laws

Twitter reserves the right to “reclaim usernames on behalf of businesses or individuals that hold legal claim or trademark on those usernames.” Did I mention you might get sued as well by the rightful owner of the trademark?

10. Don’t Impersonate Another Person

This is the fast track to a lawsuit, especially if you impersonate a celebrity. You will get sued if you do this. Again, just don’t do it. The worst part is that people usually do it for the “sake of comedy,” and it rarely ends up being funny. OK, the guy impersonating Shaq was pretty funny. But that’s the exception, not the rule.

At the end of the day, it’s important to remember that you are solely responsible for what you Tweet so be very careful.

I really enjoyed writing this article for you and I look forward to reading and responding to your comments.

Adrianos is licensed to practice law in California only. This blog post does not constitute legal advice, nor is it intended to create an attorney-client relationship. Happy tweeting!

Comments

  • August 21, 2009

    Tweeting about a bachelor party?! That’s a terrible idea!!

  • August 21, 2009

    These are some great common sense rules to abide by. I don’t agree with not using your name as your Twitter handle for two main reasons:

    1) The courts may force Twitter to unmask your identity if someone sues them. This just occurred yesterday when the courts forced Google to unmask an anonymous blogger who made “tormenting remarks” against a Vogue model. San Francisco Chronicle Article: http://is.gd/2qafG

    2) Using your actual name for your Twitter handle is a great way to increase your ranking and online presence on search engines such as Google. Each tweet actually has its own page that Google indexes and displays on search results pertaining to your name. The many links to articles and other sites (including your own such as Facebook, LinkedIn or your blog) help boost your rankings, especially when high-ranking individuals retweet your posts.

    The bottom-line is to use common sense across your entire online presence. Assume that everything is in plain view of the public. Use the power of the internet to promote yourself and your business in a positive light.

  • August 21, 2009

    Philip:

    You make some really good points and I’m glad you took the time to read the entire post!

    It’s true that anonymity is not guaranteed, even if you use an alias. However, it’s not easy to persuade a court to force an ISP to reveal the identity of a blogger (it doesn’t happen as often as most people think). The aggrieved party must jump through a number of hoops in order to do so.

    Not using your real name is simply another layer of protection, which is why I suggested it. A person really doesn’t have anything to worry as long as they’re not making negative comments about anyone or any business (generally speaking). In other words, my suggestion to use an alias on Twitter was directed more towards those who are highly critical of others.

  • August 21, 2009

    I could stop from laughing when I got to Lay of the Booze. Funny and true.

  • August 21, 2009

    Some very good points. In the recent Horizon Group Management case where a Chicago woman tweeted about mold in her apartment, I >a href=”http://www.geneabloggers.com/terms-service-agreement-blog/”>suggested to my readers that they may want to just state their opinion in a blog post and simply tweet a link to the post. If they have a Terms of Service agreement on their blog they might be better covered in cases of possible defamatory statements. A 140-character limit makes it just too dangerous to have statements misinterpreted.

  • August 21, 2009

    LOL! You said Shenanigans.

    But seriously, great information. I think as Social Media sites like Twitter and Facebook become more and more mainstream and as big companies are getting on them, you’ll see people getting sued.

    We all need to treat it like we would traditional media and be careful about what we say.

  • August 21, 2009

    Common Sense ? …

    I often wonder how some people make it through life with their version of common sense.

    You make some GREAT points, and to add to them, I just read an article that talks about how many employers are now checking social media when deciding to hire an individual.

    Yes social media is much like a party, but remember it’s recorded in history too.

    I’m the type who has chosen to use my real name for my social media identity, but I am considering a non branded version to contribute to the much lighter side of social media.

    Great post, thanks … Scott

  • August 21, 2009

    I’m all for transparency and I will admit to doing the odd tweet under the influence, but hey I’m human and god forbid… I do hope the rest of are. Yes, in a world of lawyers and second, third and fourth opinions…. why heck is this not part of the charm? Hmmm… but I ramble. Yes, mum was right (and still is on the keeping things close to the chest). But please, whatever you do… express that privilege of yours and let the world know what’s on your mind, discoveries, lost hopes, triumphs, the lot!! Peace…

  • August 21, 2009

    Thanks for the article. I always try and play by the Golden Rule, i.e. Twitter unto others, and all that.

    The problem with Twitter (as a medium, not a company – disclaimer… lol) is it encourages you to post your almost “real time” thoughts. “What are you doing right now?” – it’s not ALWAYS a good idea to answer that question, though :D

    I have an interesting question, as an addition to this post. What if we were to retweet something that turned out to be libelous? Might we be “unwitting” participants in the libel?

  • August 21, 2009

    It’s very unfair when only celebrities can have their identity protected, Im being impersonated with my name, my same Twitter Background and picture avatar, and my request was ignored by Twitter.

  • August 21, 2009

    This was really fun to read from a lawyers perspective. I am not sure why people use their real names and post stupid things on Twitter anyways. It is “public,” and everyone does see it, even if they are not signed up to Twitter or logged in.

  • August 21, 2009

    Great post! Anything with the word “shenanigans” makes for great reading, but this was especially interesting in this day and age. So glad you enjoyed writing this article for us. Thanks!!

  • August 21, 2009

    “Twitter Rage”, I love it! Yep, I’ve seen TwRage! It was TwitRageous! Good points. I don’t think there are many people thinking about how not to get sued on Twitter….yet!

  • August 21, 2009

    I’m glad you all enjoyed reading the post and I hope you take some of my suggestions to heart. While I like to use humor to make some of my points, the subject matter is serious. You need to be careful on Twitter – that doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, however. Happy tweeting!

  • August 21, 2009

    11. Boil all the above down to “don’t be an idiot” – treat Twitter like any other public conversation. Would you say it on national TV? Then don’t say it on a public forum such as Twitter.

    12. If you don’t use Twitter, you can’t get sued for a stupid tweet!

  • August 22, 2009

    Yeah it is a funny 10 ways to avoid being sued lol…
    i liked the article…Thanks.

  • August 26, 2009

    I love the No Booze one, number 7 I believe, it’s funny but a very good point for sure. Next time I’m on the computer having a few I’ll just play a game instead.

  • August 27, 2009

    Great Points!
    I’m Re-Tweeting this. :~)

  • August 27, 2009
    Desperado
    @Desperado

    Of course, to completely protect yourself from defamation litigation, is to have absolutely dick all in lienable assets. “Wanna sue me? Take a #, line forms to the left.”

  • August 28, 2009

    I agree with you regarding the temptation sometimes that you want to “reach out” to some people and tell them that they have ticked you off. It is a good idea to send a DM if you’re going to do it and you should be polite. That being said, the really cool thing about Twitter is that ultimately it’s all about choice. We chose to follow this person and get their tweets. We can choose to unfollow them and NOT get their tweets. It’s really that simple.

  • October 11, 2009

    Adrianos, great points and well put it a humorous tone.

    Sorry for the auto-DM ;) LOL

    Jason
    http://twitter.com/BizCoachJason
    http://bit.ly/dcsnsr Untangling Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook & More…

  • January 16, 2010

    Don’t tweet anything you want to keep from anyone. You may not be aware of all who are following you. Don’t mention anything that could come back to bite you in the ass, whether it be the big purchase you don’t want your spouse to know about or what a pain your boss is. Unless your thread is locked anyone could possibly see it

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