10 Ways Twitter Can Land You In Jail

5th September, 2013.


Today in the BBC news report covering the trial of Michael Le Vell it was disclosed that a 43 year old man has been arrested for sending a tweet. It's happened before where famous people are on trial and it'll no doubt happen again. So, has the law changed massively? What do you need to know?

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Years ago, if you wanted to rob a bank you would have to go there in person, with a crew, a get-away-driver and a swag bag for the cash. Well, now you can do it over the internet. But no one is confused about the fact that if you do, it is still a crime. But when it comes to the use of social media it appears that some still believe that Twitter and Facebook occupy a special category somewhere high above the law. They don't. So here are the top 10 ways to land in prison!

1. Don’t plan a robbery

“But it’s just on Facebook!”…hmmm…good luck with that one!

Anything that was a criminal offence before Facebook and Twitter is still a criminal offence. And whilst you can’t use Facebook to blow open a bank safe it does tend to lend itself to planning and planning a criminal offence, which is just as serious an offence as the offence itself. You may have heard of it by a different name, it’s called ‘conspiracy’. So don’t plan a racket, robbery or riot (like these people did) otherwise you’ll go to jail.

Having a joke however is apparently entirely another matter, even if you tweet a threat to blow up an airport because it is snowy. You may have to fight for a bit but eventually the courts will agree with you (see here and see the new DPP Guidance below.)

2. Don’t be nasty

If you are too nasty to someone that too may be a criminal offence. Again, there is no magic in it: it’s a criminal offence because it has ALWAYS been a criminal offence! It has nothing to do with Facebook or Twitter. Mocking dead children a la Sean Duffy is clearly grossly offensive.

However, even if, in the heat of the moment, you stray into the realms of something that is unacceptable, there is still a chance that you might avoid prosecution.

The Director of Public Prosecutions has published guidance on when in general he will or won’t prosecute somebody. It’s a tricky one this. The law hasn’t infact changed but the Crown Prosecution Service will apply these guidelines before bringing a case. So what if they bring a case outside the guidelines? Well all you can do then is judicially review them. Bring on the debate about who the law makers are: the government or the CPS? Anyway, you can find the details, finally published on 20th June 2013, here (DPP Social Media Guidance).

3. Don’t libel anyone

What’s libel? Well, there is a new defamation act coming into force later this year. You can find it here (Defamation Act 2013). You must not tell untruths about others, to anyone else. It’s amazing in this day and age how easily we all pass on information from others. Don’t. Well not without using your noodle first. If it was libellous when it got to you, if you pass it on, fair comment and truth aside, you will have libelled too. Simple as. (See below.)

4. Don’t post a photo you’re not supposed to post

You might, in your job - say - have photos or have the chance to take photos which you otherwise wouldn’t. You might also in that job have a secrecy clause, or a duty to someone else you come into contact with. You may even have access to photos which are not yours. But most of all if you are a nurse, don’t take pictures of people's bottoms and put them on the internet (Nursing Assistant Patients Buttocks on Facebook).

5. Don’t break court injunctions

“But I didn’t know about them!” Tough. If you break it, you’ll be in contempt of court, a serious business and an act punishable by imprisonment and fines. If you genuinely do have the latest scoop about a footballer’s recent case, then just check with the court first.

For an extreme example of when not to use ‘LOL’ (when you have just crashed into someone whilst DUI) see this case (although you’ll note that it is because she broke the injunction, not because she used 'LOL' - LOL!).

However, there is an exception if you are in Parliament. If MPs say it there, when Parliament is sitting, you can report that they said it to your heart’s content because what your government says can't be secret. You might remember the MP who broke a super injuction and named Ryan Giggs in the House of Commons. Despite the super injuction, that paved the way for everyone else including the BBC in this article. A bit naughty of him really, but pretty clever we say.

6. Don’t tell others of your jury experience

Famous people, famous trials – I’m desparate to tell you all about it! Don’t. We covered this one. It’s obvious why you shouldn’t see our article here.

7. Victims of sexual offences are protected

Victims of sexual offences are just that and their identity is protected. When ten separate people named the victim of rape in the case of Ched Evans, each of them was convicted and fined.

8. Don’t name child offenders

Again, whatever you may feel about it, they are a vulnerable group and they are protected too. This came to light when two decided to publish pictures, against a court order, of Venables and Thomson. Serious indeed, they received prison sentences, albeit suspended.

9. Don’t break the law in another country

Think Julian Assange and that airport guy stuck in Russia. The argument is that if you try to put information up which would harm another country that ultimately extradition will extend its lofty arm and you'll have to face the laws of that country.

10. Don’t forward stuff willy nilly

“Oh, but I just copied the story from one post and re-tweeted it – it wasn’t my fault.” Think, just a minute. Let’s rewind the clock to before FB and what if we instead say, “Oh but all I did was take the diamonds from one person and give them to another."

Again, the law isn’t friendly to anyone who ‘re’ does anything which was first itself a ‘no-no’. Obvious when you are dealing with diamond, a bit less obvious when it is information, but if you re-post something banned by a court, you are infringing afresh. It is your problem. Libel too.

The problem is perhaps again that before the internet, not many people ‘published’ stuff. You had to have a printing machine and the correct character set (Times Old Roman) before stamping out your flyer and handing it out. But now it's easy to 'publish' (as the law understands the word) and it's easy for it to go viral and out of control.

So there we have it: the top 10 ways not to go to prison by using Twitter or Facebook. You have been warned!

Please don't hesitate to get in touch if we can help you or your company, with help, advice or training in relation to any of the above but please do not rely on the contents of this tongue-in-check article as legal advice. (I'm sure you wouldn't!)


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