research and consultancy for charities


Tweet disposition; the dangers and consequences of underestimating Twitter

22 February 2013 Blog
Twitter words

Anyone reading the charity news this month will have seen the furore caused by Giles Pegram’s comments about women in fundraising. They were made in response to concerns raised about The Summit, a conference to discuss the future of fundraising that included just one female speaker alongside nine male counterparts.

As a result, The Summit was cancelled and he issued an immediate apology, while almost everyone else spoke in equal measure of their respect for him and disdain for his opinion. This got me thinking, as nfpSynergy’s Twitterer-in-Chief, about the dangers we face using this powerful tool. What is best practice and how can charities tread carefully in this digital minefield?

A company called Odeo invented Twitter in 2006. It has well over 500 million users and 460,000 accounts are created every day. It’s great for marketing and very useful for staying on top of what is happening, plus it’s free. What could go wrong?

As we’ve seen recently, quite a lot. With great power...

Once it’s out there, it’s too late

Lord McAlpine knows the effect of Twitter only too well after THAT Newsnight programme. A Tweet by Iain Overton of the Bureau of Investigative Journalism beforehand started a fire that quickly got out of control. The accusation turned out to be untrue, Overton resigned and was quickly joined on the job market by George Entwhistle from the BBC. 

The whole sorry mess saw the Beeb face a libel lawsuit and shipping £185,000, plus costs, of public money to Lord McAlpine. ITV have since had to ask for his sort code and account number and chipped in £125,000 for mentioning him on THAT list of names from Twitter.

The McAlpine legal freight train has set off towards Sally Bercow and will sue her for a Tweet she sent, then deleted, before deleting her account. He confirmed yesterday he’s dropping claims against anyone with fewer than 500 followers who defamed him if they donate £25 to Children in Need. If this was you, my amateur legal opinion is to cross their palm with silver, even if you think it’s 30 pieces. 

The point here is that once a Tweet is out there, deletion or retraction won’t save you. Twitter can get you into a lot of trouble if your Tweet turns out to be untrue. Given they operate in an environment of strong opinions, charities need to be completely sure of what they are Tweeting. Ask yourself, is this true? And can I prove it? If in doubt, leave it out!

Float like a butterfly, tweet like me, you can’t sue what you can’t see

People seem to think they can hide behind the anonymity of Twitter, but this isn’t the case. In November, nine people were ordered to shell out £624 for illegally naming the victim in the rape case of footballer Ched Evans on Twitter. None of them are famous, but they were still tracked down, identified and felt the full extent of the law.

Charity workers have to be wary of hiding behind the organisation’s Twitter. Depending on the law broken, it could be the charity itself in the dock. What effect will this have on your trust levels? What will your donors do? And what about the board and trustees? If you made the decision to put an inexperienced person in charge of your public voice, you might be joining them in the dole queue.

Freedom of speech and ‘all views my own’

Fortunately, we live in a society where we’re not going to serve a stretch in the big house for condemning the Con-Dems or questioning the Queen. But that doesn’t mean you can say whatever you like.

Attorney General Dominic Grieve is investigating the Twitter publication of a photo alleged to be Jon Venables, one of the killers of Jamie Bulger. There is a worldwide injunction banning this. I myself saw one user’s account, so convinced in the validity of his moral crusade he was taunting the government to sue him, writing #comeandgetme. You’re breaking the law, they can come for you and they very well might.

Charities might well see issues they want to contribute to. You need to ask yourself, is this legal? Is it true? Am I commenting on a case that hasn’t been to trial yet? Am I naming someone, even to support them, who cannot be legally identified? Do I know for a fact I’m allowed to Tweet this?

It seems the old excuses just don’t apply after these landmark cases. Fortunately, the worst I have to worry about on a daily basis is a spelling mistake or uploading the wrong link from BitLy. But I have passed exams in defamation law, media law and contempt of court and I use them all regularly. Even writing this blog there were many things I couldn’t print.

Twitter and Facebook caught the lawmakers off guard. Indeed, how do you come up with pre-emptive legislation for a Silicon Valley pipe dream? But the long arm of the law was always going to log on eventually. So was everyone in the industries in which we work. It is crucial that you leave your Twitter account in safe hands and that people have had proper training. You’d be amazed how many people think freedom of speech means they can write whatever they like.

Charities are beginning to use social media a lot more. But anything we write could have consequences. Just ask Sally Bercow, the Ched Evans Nine, Giles Pegram or anyone who had already paid for their train to The Summit.

***UPDATE - since I wrote this, Attorney General Dominic Grieve has instigated contempt of court proceedings against a number of individuals for the publication of the photos claimed to be Jon Venables. Court papers are to be served shortly. Read more here.
In addition, since I wrote this, a tenth person pleaded guilty to naming the victim in the Ched Evans case. She shelled out £1,644.

Has this spurred you inter-action? Or have we made a hash-tag of this? Leave us a comment below.

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Submitted by Jim Raymond on
Really helpful article Rob and some good principles for people to be mindful of as they tweet.

Worth keeping some perspective as well. Of the millions of tweets sent each day, it is a miniscule percentage that have had legal proceedings issued. Worse odds even than the lottery!

The issue isn't the risk of using twitter. The issue is the risk of breaking the laws of defamation, libel and privacy. If what you say on Twitter, in the street, in print, on tv is legal, then you actually have very little to worry about.



Submitted by Anna Chistyakova on
Hi Jim,

Great to have your comments and glad you found it useful!

Good point about the chances being slim compared to the millions of Tweets. I think that's mainly because most of those millions don't break the law, but I'm sure some do slip through the net. I mainly mean it's not worth the risk.

You obviously agree with the crux of the article; that as long as what you say is legal, you have nothing to worry about - my concern is that people might not be aware of what is illegal based on those laws.

Thanks for reading and do check back and comment as we write a new blog every week.


Submitted by Leigh Horton on
A good article but of course it's not just Twitter, so many people think they can get away with anything online, where offline they would have faced libel/slander accusations. The TES, for example, has allowed some particularly nasty trolls on their forums. I had one attack me for a totally innocuous post I made. He went to my LinkedIn profile (I assume) and posted that I'd been sacked from numerous jobs as some had been short-term(I have done agency contracts and most definitely never been sacked in my life)! I did get the TES to take the post down after a few days, but I noticed this troll, who of course hid behind anonymity, had posted over 5,000 times over the previous 12 months and most posts were vile and vindictive. As a passionate believer in the importance of free speech I don't want censorship, but the balance does appear to have tipped in the favour of the irresponsible.

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