Pitfalls of ‘divorce by Twitter’
Social media sites can be dangerous places to visit when marriages fall apart, says Marilyn Stowe
Last week Ben Goldsmith exposed his marital breakdown in all its rawness for the world to see, firing insults and accusations at his estranged wife Kate over Twitter. “How about focusing on her devastated children?” he tweeted, after she hired a PR agency to “fix her reputation”.
He also posted a link to a newspaper story about her alleged extramarital dalliance. The couple later issued a joint statement expressing regret that “things have been said in public which should have been kept private”, but not before their private lives had been raked over by the media and the social network’s users.
The unsavoury episode has highlighted the potential pitfalls of what is becoming known as divorce by Twitter. It is increasingly hard for family lawyers to ignore social media. Eight years ago, Friends Reunited was held responsible for a rise in the divorce rate as users contacted former partners. More recently, Facebook and Twitter have been blamed: a survey last December claims that of 5,000 divorce petitions, a third of behaviour petitions contained the word Facebook.
The most common reasons for citing Facebook related to the other party’s behaviour; but also his or her use of public walls as divorce “weapons”, post-separation. When Twitter appeared in petitions, the reason was similar: unpleasant comments about former partners.
Why are warring couples seemingly throwing caution to the wind and broadcasting their rage and revulsion towards one another online?
Social networks can be addictive, particularly when fuelled by emotion or alcohol. Family lawyers find that they also tap into a common need that former partners feel compelled to keep contacting one another, even when they have nothing positive to say. Clients used to resort to text messages, which fulfilled the same need but were at least private. Now Facebook and Twitter seem to have taken over, with outcomes that are potentially more damaging.
Such social media do, of course, have their uses. For those in the public eye, Twitter can be viewed as a tool to set the record straight. Kate Goldsmith took to Twitter to revert to her maiden name, Rothschild. This week she tweeted about “the luxury of not having [words] twisted and magimixed by the press”, adding, “Twitter is the only recourse for most.”
But such small personal vindications can be far outweighed by the legal implications. What is said online can easily be stored, retrieved and presented in court at a later date. A courtroom may seem like a world away from a comfy armchair and an iPad, but it isn’t. Going public by sending malicious communications around the world could be counted as unreasonable behaviour for divorce and result in various injunctions, child contact issues, financial awards and increased costs.
In my experience, online harassment in divorce cases is also increasingly prevalent. It is not unusual for an embittered party to resort to malicious comment across the internet. But there is a difference between honestly held opinion, which is fair comment, and a campaign of harassment. The criminal law can prosecute malicious communications and harassment, but cyberbullying and internet harassment is harder to police.
Online abuse is often anonymous, and it can be difficult to ascertain the culprit’s identity, even when the clues are there, because websites are reluctant to provider users’ details. The Defamation Bill, which will reform libel laws and place a duty on internet service providers and websites to help to identify those posting defamatory messages, is to be welcomed.
Twenty years ago, Lady Sarah Graham-Moon famously sought revenge on her husband by pouring paint over his BMW, chopping the sleeves off his suits and delivering his wine to neighbours’ doorsteps. In 2012, it appears that the done thing is for embittered spouses to take to their keyboards instead — with potentially catastrophic results. Just as the car, suits and wine cellar were ruined beyond repair, what is published cannot be unpublished. We are advising our clients — before they press the post, tweet or send buttons — to think long and hard.