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24 May 2019
The UK Supreme Court has overturned a decision of the Court of Appeal, and held that the judge erred in law by using the Oxford English dictionary definition of a word as a starting point and not taking its context as a Facebook post, into consideration.
The Supreme Court looked to how an ordinary reader of a Facebook post would have interpreted the post.
Mrs Stocker’s use of the phrase ‘he tried to strangle me’ was considered, by the lower courts, to mean that Mr Stocker had tried to kill her, and was found to be defamatory. The Supreme Court found that the dictionary definition of ‘to strangle’ should only have been used as a check, and ‘a realistic exploration of how the ordinary reader of the post would have understood it’ was more appropriate. ‘Anyone reading [the] post would not break it down in the way that Mitting J did by saying, well, strangle means either killing someone by choking them to death or grasping them by the throat and since Mrs Stocker is not dead, she must have meant that her husband tried to kill her – no other meaning is conceivable.’ The Supreme Court decided that when reading Mrs Stocker’s post, and knowing that the author was alive, the ordinary Facebook reader would have interpreted the post as meaning that Mr Stocker had grasped his wife by the throat and applied force to her neck rather than that he had tried deliberately to kill her.
The Supreme Court underwent an interesting analysis of the context of social media and its users. They considered the recent decision in Monir v Wood  EWHC (QB) 3525 where Nicklin J said, “Twitter is a fast moving medium. People will tend to scroll through messages relatively quickly.” and the Supreme Court cited that ‘Facebook is similar’.
They noted the importance of context when determining meaning in social media posts, as people “do not pause and reflect”, and ponder possible meanings. “Their reaction to the post is impressionistic and fleeting.”
The ‘ordinary reader of Facebook’ appears to have been considered, much like the well established ‘passenger of the Clapham Omnibus’ .
The effect is likely to be that in future Courts will look to the context of Facebook to determine meaning and effect of words used when considering defamation claims. It is unlikely to cause a flood of cases in regards meaning, nor remove the use of the dictionary when considering meaning in the Courts.
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