Last week, film director Spike Lee retweeted (to his 250,000 followers) the home address of an elderly couple in Florida named David and Elaine McClain. Lee mistakenly thought the couple were related to now infamous neighborhood watchman George Zimmerman.  Turns out, although the McClains do have a son named William George Zimmerman, they are not related to the suspect in the Trayvon Martin case, and their son has not even lived at their address since 1995.  Lee’s tweet forced the couple to flee their home after neighbors and others threatened them with violence. The McClains had to move into a hotel after receiving hate mail and media attention, and they have now hired a lawyer.

Soon after the retweet, Lee tweeted the following apology: ”I Deeply Apologize To The McClain Family For Retweeting Their Address. It Was A Mistake. Please Leave The McClain’s In Peace. Justice In Court.” The McClains’ lawyer has not said whether or not the couple will sue. Their son has said that he fears for his parents’ safety, in the event that their address gets into the wrong hands. This incident is concerning not only because Lee tweeted the address of an innocent couple in their 70s, but also because he seemed to encourage hateful vigilantism by tweeting the address at all.

Twitter rules forbid users from posting people’s confidential information, “such as credit card numbers, street address or Social Security/National Identity numbers,” absent their express consent. The rules state: ”If someone has posted your private information on Twitter, please submit a Support ticket….Once you’ve submitted your ticket, we’ll email you a ticket confirmation with more information.” In this case, Twitter removed the content after a request from the McClains. But could Twitter have done anything more to protect these non-Twitter-users from a potentially dangerous tweet?

The McClains may have cognizable tort claims against the man who originally found and tweeted the address, and against Lee for retweeting it to a very large audience, but can they sue Twitter? The social networking website’s terms state that “[u]nder no circumstances will Twitter be liable in any way for any Content, including, but not limited to, any errors or omissions in any Content, or any loss or damage of any kind incurred as a result of the use of any Content posted, emailed, transmitted or otherwise made available via the Services or broadcast elsewhere.” It seems like Twitter will be immune from suit here, because they followed the requisite notice-and-takedown procedures to remove the McClains’ information.

As a big fan of Twitter, I have to say that the spilling of information like this may unfortunately be the nature of the beast. I think Spike Lee’s decision to retweet was ridiculous, but I do not think Twitter should suffer the consequences if the McClains are able to collect damages. The website investigated the claim immediately and removed the content as soon as a violation was confirmed. Lee, on the other hand, may have more explaining to do.

Caroline Millsap

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9 Responses to How to Retract a Retweet: Life Lessons from @SpikeLee

  1. Talor Bearman says:

    This reminds me of eBay or Amazon and selling knock-off items. There was a question of whether eBay or Amazon could be held liable for the sale of knock-off merchandise on their website. In the end, the courts created a safe harbor for these sites. As long as they took these items down after complaints they would not be liable. I think this sounds similar.

  2. Alexandra Pichette says:

    I do agree that Twitter cannot and should not be held responsible for these tweets, but I do think some of these issues need to be shaped around the newer features of the internet which do distinguish it from information disseminated through USPS or other more traditional sources- specifically, the permanence of information released to the internet and the incredibly public forum for that information. The focus should be on the conduct of the person submitting the information, but I think in general forum should be held accountable for following various guidelines. Here- Twitter seemed to act appropriately, and any further policy shaping should probably be conducted by the legislature or an agency with relevant expertise, not the courts.

    • Henson says:

      While Twitter appears to have no legal responsibility here, I agree with R.L. that they would be wise to create greater restrictions and penalties for users advocating violence.

  3. Meredith Lawrence says:

    While I agree with everyone that Twitter should not be held responsible for Spike Lee’s tweet, I also wonder what more Twitter could do to keep apprised of such events. Besides ultimately banning a user from Twitter, I do not know what more they could do to sanction a user. Yet, with all of the controversy surrounding the Trayvon Martin case, it seems that the company should have been more prepared for users to utilize Twitter in such potentially problematic ways. Thus, they should probably have been better prepared to deal with possible misuses.

  4. R.L. says:

    I agree with everyone above that Twitter should not be responsible for Spike Lee’s tweet. However, Twitter should have harsher penalties for users that submit extremely reckless messages. In this case, Spike Lee knew that the Black Panthers had a $10,000 bounty out for George Zimmerman. Lee’s tweet could have ended disastrously, and Twitter should recognize this and impose a harsher penalty than simply deleting the message.

  5. Alex Payne says:

    Holding Twitter responsible here would be like holding the USPS responsible for transmitting hate mail. There are certainly growing pains with every technological innovation, but no technology can really take responsibility for human stupidity. The point is that Spike Lee should have never hit “Send,” regardless of the forum.

  6. Tom says:

    I agree with both of you. Twitter should not be responsible for what its users post as this would make it impossible to have Twitter at all (and would defeat much of Twitter’s purpose). However, it is surprising to me that there is not, in addition to the notice and takedown procedures, a penalty for users posting inappropriate material (e.g., if a particular user’s content must be removed after notice to Twitter X number of times, the account is deactivated).

    Although Twitter may be able to put additional protections in place to avoid instances like this in the future, there will inevitably be problems where a person has the capability to widely disseminate his or her thoughts at any given time with very little effort. In this case, it seems that Spike Lee has taken responsibility for his mistake (see http://www.boston.com/business/technology/articles/2012/03/30/spike_lee_settles_for_retweeting_wrong_address/).

  7. Colton Cline says:

    Turns out Lee and the McClains settled out of court (http://www.latimes.com/news/nation/nationnow/la-na-nn-trayvon-martin-lee-settlement-20120329,0,7063902.story). It would be very interesting to see how much prohibiting the furtherance of the controversy would have been worth to Lee. I also think it would have been helpful if a suit were successful against Lee, as it might solidify the reality that the internet is a real forum for the dissemination of information, and one’s actions online have consequences in the “real world.”

  8. Ilana says:

    This reminds me of the recent debacle involving Justin Bieber. According to Reuters, Justin Bieber tweeted a phone number with the message “Call me right now,” but omitted the last digit of the number. Unfortunately, two numbers worked, much to the annoyance of the owners of those numbers. I agree that Twitter should not be held liable for such user actions. It is the user who should be held accountable.

    For more information, see http://www.reuters.com/article/2012/03/30/tagblogsfindlawcom2012-celebrityjustice-idUS200061962620120330.