Twitter is a public medium, and that makes some people nervous that what they say could result in them being sued for defamation. But while that's not an impossible scenario, the most likely damaging consequence from an ill-considered Tweet is that you might lose your job.
In a presentation at the Melbourne WordCamp event over the weekend, lawyer Alex Farrar pointed out that there aren't any specific laws in Australia pertaining to communicating on Twitter. "There is no law specific to Twitter. What we look at is the way the existing law is trying to adapt to apply to Twitter. The law lags behind -- well behind -- the sorts of problems and disputes we see in real life."
Farrar noted that Australia is, in relative terms, a fairly easy county to bring a defamation action: there's no freedom of speech defence and defamation is broadly defined as any comment which might lower the reputation of its subject. In practice, however, you're much more likely to get fired for an inappropriate tweet than to be sued for saying something unpleasant.
"The real risk of using social media is the risk of your relationship with your employer," Farrar said. "A lot of the advice I'm giving to people about their use of blogs and twitter is that we're not looking at changes in the law, we're looking at changes in behaviour and as a result changes in risk. You can't be bolder in social media because the same [legal]rules apply."
Many workplaces now have a specific social media policy which either prohibits the use of Twitter to discuss job-related issues. Staff who ignore that policy may end being shown the door, but even if there isn't a policy in place, an indiscreet comment might result in your boss asking you to leave.
That scenario might be common, but so far there haven't been many repercussions. "Twitter users who are getting into trouble for their postings tend to be young individuals who don't have the resources to take it to court," Farrar pointed out. Twitter is useful, but so is being employed, so a little discretion can be wise.