Online defamation: how can you sue an anonymous account?

Social media offers many people a level of anonymity that would be hard to achieve outside of online life. This is sometimes used by individuals to share negative or harmful messages, while avoiding repercussions that may affect their ‘offline life’.  But is this really the case, and can so-called ‘trolls’ really hide behind a screen?

The recent case of Colliers & Others v Bennett [2020] EWHC 1884 seems to say no.

The case relates to an anonymous Twitter account named Harry Tuttle (@arrytuttle) that engaged in heated online arguments about anti-semitism with the claimants, including Rachel Riley of Countdown fame and blogger David Collier. It is alleged that the @arrytuttle account posted defamatory tweets and harassed the claimants – but how do you sue an anonymous account?

In July 2019, Daniel Bennett – a former barrister – was outed by another Twitter user as a possible owner of the @arrytuttle account. Immediately following this, the account and all its tweets were deleted. Daniel Bennent subsequently apologised to some users for some tweets from the @arrytuttle account. 

The claimants wanted to obtain proof as to who tweeted from @arrytuttle, and to obtain copies of the offending tweets. They applied for both pre action disclosure and a Norwich Pharmacal order, which is an order which requires disclosure of documents to show the identity of a wrongdoer.

After hard fought argument, the court ordered in favour of two of the claimants and Daniel Bennett was ordered to identify who used and had access to the @arrytuttle twitter account between March 2018 and 9 July 2019.

He was also ordered to disclose a narrow category of tweets that could be defamatory about the two successful Claimants (including Rachel Riley). The tweets metadata and analytics are also to be disclosed.

It will be interesting to see whether this results in further action being taken and the impact this has on the behaviour of anonymous accounts online.

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