Musk wins US libel case with good arguments about social media

Bullying billionaire or savvy user of social media?

Elon Musk’s US lawyers used some interesting arguments to defend their client from the accusation of libel.  Musk used the term “pedo guy” in a Tweet after Vernon Unsworth had turned down an offer by Musk to build a submarine to save the trapped Thai football team.

Musk did not name Unsworth but Unsworth claimed in a US court that it referred to him.

Unsworth sued for libel in the US because Musk said he would not come to England to defend the action.

Best arguments

The best arguments used by Musk’s lawyers were:

  • There was no harm to Unsworth.
  • In arguments you insult people.
  • It was in the rough and tumble of the Twitter platform which is infamous for insinuation and hyperbole.

Musk had apologised to Unsworth.  Seven jurors decided in favour of Musk and the Judge dismissed the libel claim.

Unsworth’s UK lawyers say he would definitely have won if it had been heard in the English and Welsh courts.

I’m not so sure.

Take each argument in turn:

  • There was no harm to Unsworth. Claimants here have to prover they were seriously damaged to win a case.
  • In arguments you insult people. “Chaff and banter” are not actionable here: it’s like an argument in a pub.  You don’t think deeply about what you are going to say before saying it or Tweeting it.
  • It was in the rough and tumble of the Twitter platform which is infamous for insinuation and hyperbole. Tweets are read differently from mainstream media, according to a case resolved here this year.  The “reader” does not pay particular attention to the detail of the words.

Unsworth’s lawyers have said: “There is a real danger now that people will be able to on Twitter and other social media that they cannot say in traditional media in the UK.”

Read and pass on

Yet in the case Stocker v Stocker the English and Welsh Supreme Court said this April: “Facebook [and other social media] was a casual medium and was in the nature of a conversation rather than carefully chosen expression, and it was pre-eminently one in which the reader read and passed on.”

Unsworth would best be advised to read it and pass on.

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