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Are Our Words Interpreted Differently by Social Media Users? UK Supreme Court Issues Judgment

AUTHOR(S): April McClements, Michael Byrne
PRACTICE AREA GROUP: Commercial Litigation and Dispute Resolution, Defamation and Privacy
DATE: 15.05.2019

On 3 April 2019, the UK Supreme Court held that comments made by a wife in a Facebook post that her former husband had “tried to strangle” her were not defamatory.  The case is of particular importance given the reaffirmation* by the UK Supreme Court of the correct approach to interpreting potentially defamatory statements. Judgments of the UK courts can be of persuasive authority in Ireland:

  • The UK Supreme Court found that the meaning of an alleged defamatory statement should be determined in accordance with the ordinary reader’s interpretation, rather than the dictionary definition of the words used, which can be “divorced” from the context in which the statement was made.
  • The Supreme Court emphasised the requirement to consider the context in which the alleged defamatory comments were made. Here, the alleged defamatory statement was made on Facebook, which the Court described as a “casual medium”, where the reaction to any post by the ordinary social media user is “impressionistic and fleeting”. As a result, the judgment may act as a significant touchstone for defamation claims brought on foot of a statement published on a social media platform.

Facts

Mr Stocker issued a claim for defamation on the basis that the words “he tried to strangle me”, published on Facebook by his former wife, Mrs Stocker, meant that he had attempted to kill Mrs Stocker.

In the UK High Court, the trial judge accepted this meaning of the words and found in favour of Mr Stocker. In reaching his decision, the judge referred to the Oxford English Dictionary definition of “strangle” and distinguished between the term “he strangled me”, which could be interpreted to mean Mr Stocker painfully constricted Mrs Stocker’s throat with his hand, and “he tried to strangle me” which could only be read as an attempt to kill.

The UK Court of Appeal upheld the High Court decision, noting that whilst the use of dictionary definitions does not form part of the process of determining the natural and ordinary meaning of words, no harm was done as the Judge had merely used the dictionary definitions as a check and no more.

Judgment

The UK Supreme Court unanimously upheld Mrs Stocker’s appeal, finding that the trial judge had erred in law by over-relying on the dictionary definitions and failing to give proper account to the context in which the statement was written.

The Supreme Court highlighted in particular the “danger” of using dictionary definitions to provide a guide to the meaning of an alleged defamatory statement.  The Supreme Court disagreed with the trial judge’s reliance on dictionary definitions of “strangle” in this case and, given that the trial judge had consulted the dictionary before the trial began and commended consideration of it to counsel, the Supreme Court found that the dictionary definition was indeed the starting point for the trial judge’s analysis, rather than a mere cross-checking exercise. Confining the meaning of the words exclusively to two dictionary definitions had produced an anomalous result in this case.

The UK Supreme Court also determined that, when construing the meaning of a publication, it is critical to be conscious of the circumstances in which the publication occurred. The Supreme Court noted that “the advent of the 21st century has brought with it a new class of reader: the social media user”.

The Court held that a social media user would be cognisant of the “casual medium” of Facebook and that the post was “in the nature of the conversation rather than a carefully chosen expression”.  The Supreme Court compared Facebook to Twitter, stating that the typical user of such platforms does not ponder on what meaning any statement might possibly bear, and their reaction to any post is “impressionistic and fleeting”. The Supreme Court deemed it “unwise” to engage in an examination of words posted on social media for a deducible meaning; instead there is an obligation on the court to remove itself from a “lawyerly analysis” and to stand in the shoes of the typical reader of a social media post.

The Supreme Court held that the correct meaning of the words used was that Mr Stocker had grasped his wife by the neck and applied force. On the basis of this meaning, it was also held that the defence of justification was available to Mrs Stocker.

Comment

The UK Supreme Court’s decision is to be welcomed, particularly given its reaffirmation of the correct approach to interpreting words used in an allegedly defamatory statement and its removal of an otherwise anomalous result in this case.

The guidance provided on how a social media user would interpret posts made on social media is also to be welcomed, particularly given the growing importance and use of social media. The introduction of the concept of the “social media user”, who does not read or analyse in the same manner as the conventional “ordinary reader”, is an interesting progression which should be observed carefully by litigators and publishers alike. The increasing overlap between social media and conventional news outlets, and the tendency for statements to be published on multiple platforms, means the distinction between social media posts and more traditional news publications may become increasingly blurred and the context in which a statement is made more difficult to define. Whilst this complex point has yet to be specifically addressed by the Irish courts, it will be interesting to see whether the UK’s approach will be followed by our own judiciary in the future.

This article was co-authored by Senior Associate Tom Turner.

If you have any questions in relation to this judgment or require further information on this subject, contact our defamation and privacy specialists.
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* The Supreme Court made repeated reference to the approach adopted in Jeynes v News Magazines Ltd [2008] EWCA Civ 130

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