In today’s digital age, defamation takes countless shapes and forms. Common defamation examples include:
- False posts, comments, statuses, and profiles on social media websites such as Facebook or Twitter used to harass individuals and businesses.
- Fake online reviews and ratings posted to consumer review websites such as Yelp and Google that do not reflect a genuine experience of a customer;
- False shaming posts and reports on cheater and shaming websites accusing individuals of infidelity, predatory behavior, or having committed a crime;
- Factually incorrect information, write-ups, and identifications in news articles and media publications.
Read on for an in-depth breakdown of online defamation and common examples found in social media, online reviews, public shaming sites, and news articles — as well as several actionable tips to avoid becoming a victim of defamation yourself.
What Do Defamation, Libel, & Slander Mean?
Defamation, also commonly referred to as defamation of character, is a false statement that harms another person’s reputation. It can be further broken down into:
- Libel — Defamation in written form, both printed and digital. This can include a defamatory social media post, newspaper article, online post, or even a handwritten letter.
- Slander — Defamation that is spoken aloud. This can include someone verbally spreading rumors or saying false things about you to others.
At Minc Law, we specialize in helping clients who are victims of online defamation (which is a digital form of libel). Online defamation generally falls into four categories: social media, review websites, online shaming sites, and online news articles.
Common Examples of Social Media Defamation
The power of social media stems from how easy it is for users to upload and share content, often without any form of moderation or means of fact-checking or verifying that information first. You can defame someone on social media by posting content that is damaging to someone’s reputation or character.
This content may be an exaggeration of the truth, or it could be completely false. Other times, defamatory statements are presented as absolute truth, but contain inaccuracies or fail to provide the whole story.
And defamatory statements are not limited to the platform where they originate. If you post something on Facebook, it can easily spread to Instagram or Twitter. People share these posts because they are sensational, but they do not know whether the information is correct. By hitting “share,” you may be unknowingly participating in defamation.
There are countless ways in which someone can engage in social media defamation, but some forms are more popular than others. A few examples are listed below.
1. Posting a One-Sided Story With Important Facts Left Out
Some social media users get carried away in telling misleading stories to paint other users in a bad light.
In one 2015 North Carolina defamation case, Jacquelyn Hammond posted in a Facebook group implying her former business associate, Davyne Dial, had gotten drunk and caused the death of her own child.
Dial’s child had actually been killed 39 years prior in a tragic accident that had nothing to do with Dial. This defamatory comment about Dial accused her of the felony crime of manslaughter. Due to the emotional distress she suffered from these allegations, she sued Hammond for defamation. She won an unusually high $500,000 settlement.
2. Defamation Through Bullying, Harassment, Shaming, or Stalking
Social media has become a popular tool for bullies to harass, abuse, stalk, and shame their victims.
For example, John might take a screenshot of something Sarah shared in a private Snapchat conversation. He may share it to a private Facebook group of which Sarah is not a member. That screenshot could spread through the school and result in Sarah being bullied over its contents.
Or perhaps an anonymous Twitter user publishes concocted stories about someone they intend to harm. In one high-profile example, Justin Bieber claims he has been the victim of Twitter defamation. He has filed suit against two Twitter users who accused him of sexual assault.
Many people often turn to Facebook and Twitter to vent their frustrations — but there is a fine line between “airing your dirty laundry” and defaming someone. Usually, it is best not to use Facebook or other forms of social media to shame others.
3. Cybersquatting & Fake Profiles
Cybersquatting is an emerging form of harassment done by creating a profile or website pretending to be someone else. Then, that misleading account is used for defamatory purposes.
In the notable case of La Russa v. Twitter, Inc., a Twitter user created a parody account using the name and likeness of Tony La Russa, a famous Major League Baseball manager.
The cybersquatter then made defamatory tweets, such as “Lost 2 out of 3, but we made it out of Chicago without one drunk driving incident or dead pitcher.…” After discovering these tweets, La Russa filed suit, claiming that Twitter had misappropriated his name and likeness.
Minc Law Online Defamation Fact: Cybersquatting began not as a way to defame, but make money. Many early cybersquatters registered domains in the hopes of selling back the domain to the appropriate owner for a significant profit.
4. Engaging With Harassing or Controversial Content
Perhaps it is due to the semi-anonymous nature of using social media, but users feel much freer to attack, criticize, or join in on bullying than they would in real life. Social media users react to things they find humorous or outrageous — and that invites defamatory acts, even unintentional ones.
Sometimes, republishing defamatory content, such as through a retweet or shared post, can lead to defamation republication. If an individual uses social media to share a defamatory statement (even if they do not know it is defamatory), they may be liable for defamation.
MSNBC’s Joy Reid learned experienced this scenario firsthand when she was sued for defamation after retweeting a tweet accusing a woman of shouting racist things at a high school student at a protest. The original tweet was incorrect, and by retweeting it, Reid joined the original poster in becoming liable for defamation.
What Should You Do if You Are the Victim of Social Media Defamation?
If you find yourself the victim of defamation on social media, take these steps as quickly as possible:
- Preserve evidence. This includes taking screenshots of what was posted. If possible, gather any information that can identify the poster.
- Flag and report the unlawful content. Depending on the content, reporting it to the social media company could get it removed.
- Think about whether you want to take legal action against the publisher. If you decide to pursue legal action, reach out to an attorney who is familiar with internet defamation and who understands applicable laws. However, make sure to familiarize yourself with the Streisand Effect and its potential triggers, to avoid drawing unwanted attention to your situation.
Defamation on Review Websites Like Google Reviews & Yelp
It is only natural to want to leave honest — and sometimes critical — reviews about businesses with whom you have interacted. But when does a negative online review cross the line into defamation?
A review becomes defamation when you leave out key facts, exaggerate, post inaccurate information, and when it is your intention to harm the business.
If a customer posts a factual review with nothing embellished, they are most likely not liable for defamation. In contrast, if they post an angry, embellished review that contains significant inaccuracies, they are potentially liable for defamation.
How Do Defamation Laws Apply to Online Reviews?
Defamation laws may vary by state, but defamation’s basic definition stays the same whether it takes place online or not. Courts generally decide when the line into defamation is crossed by examining the totality of the circumstances.
For example, in Bently Reserve v. Papaliolios, Andreas Papaliolios posted a negative Yelp review of the plaintiff’s apartment building. When the building owner sued, Papaliolios claimed his review had only been an opinion.
It was true that a portion of the review read, “This is my own first-hand experience with this building and its owners. I know this situation well….” However, the online review also contained language that purported specific facts as well as assurances that the claimed factual assertions were not opinions.
Therefore, by taking the totality of the circumstances of the review into account, the court concluded that Papaliolios was liable for a defamation claim because he was claiming certain facts were true in his review.
How Can Negative Online Reviews Lead to Claims for Defamation?
Reviews are a vital part of today’s society, from going to dinner to finding a plumber. According to BrightLocal, as many as 86% of online shoppers read reviews before making a purchase.
When a review contains a false statement, it can result in significant harm to the business. If a business does not have a significant online presence or a large number of existing reviews, the damage from a single one-star review can be even more severe.
Whether it be a disgruntled customer, a former employee, or a competitor, when someone posts a negative review that is not completely accurate, the business has the right to file a defamation lawsuit against the person who left the fake online review.
What is the Legality of False Negative Reviews?
While the First Amendment protects freedom of speech, it does not protect defamatory false statements. A reviewer could be liable for these false reviews and have to pay damages for the business or individual that was harmed.
The three examples below illustrate how defamation liability applies to negative online reviews:
1. The Unhappy Patient
This case involved a patient, who was unhappy about her doctor’s billing procedure. In retaliation, the patient posted numerous false one-star reviews.
After discovering the false reviews, the doctor filed a defamation suit against the patient claiming the reviews were “outright lies.” The court found that the patient was in the wrong because her assertions were not true. She was ordered to remove all reviews and pay attorney fees and damages. Great Wall Med., P.C. v. Levin, 2018 NY Slip Op 31842 (N.Y. Sup. Ct. 2018).
2. Reviewer Left Disappointed After Visiting Bigfoot Attraction
A Branson, Missouri tourist attraction filed a lawsuit against a patron who left a 3-star review about the visit. In that review, the defendant published several inaccurate remarks about details of the tour, such as the length of time to feed the animals and the price of the ticket.
Despite this incorrect information, the U.S. District Court ruled in favor of the defendants, concluding the review did not harm the company’s reputation. Bigfoot on the Strip, LLC v. Winchester, No. 18-3155-CV-s-BP, (W.D. Mo. 2019).
3. Defamation Goes Both Ways
A homeowner did not approve of the work her contractor did, so she left a negative review on Yelp. This negative review found its way to other popular scraper sites and the contractor eventually found out. He filed suit, alleging the homeowner’s comments harmed his business.
However, while litigation was ongoing, he left his own negative online comments about the homeowner. In the trial, the jury concluded that both parties had defamed each other and awarded no damages to either of them. Dietz Development, LLC, et al. v. Jane Perez, Case No. 2012-16249, (Fairfax Cnty. Cir. Ct. 2012).
Defamation Examples on Online Shaming Sites
Public shaming sites, like TheDirty.com and ShesAHomewrecker.com, focus primarily on gossip, calling out cheaters, and accusing people of being sexual predators or scam artists. They do not fact-check information posted to their platforms by third parties, which means anyone can post anything about anyone without it needing to be true.
While shaming sites can sometimes be entertaining to read, many readers do not think about the implications these kinds of sites can have on someone’s reputation and mental health. The effects are extremely real; those posts will end up on Google search results and be visible to prospective employers or dates. Many people have been driven to extreme emotional distress from the fallout of defamation on shaming sites.
Despite their devastating effects, shaming sites are legal because they are classified as user-generated platforms and protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (as discussed below). The views on these sites are not those of the websites themselves, but rather other people. Therefore, the sites are not liable for the content found on them.
For many, their reputation is all they have. Minc Law offers guaranteed removals from certain shaming and cheater websites, which means you will receive a refund if we cannot get your content successfully removed.
Who is Liable if the Shaming Site is Not Liable?
The original poster of the content on a shaming site is liable, not the website itself. Sarah Jones, for example, tried suing the shaming site Dirty World after she was the subject of several posts on its platform — but lost her case on appeal.
The appeals court ruled that the website was not liable for defamation because it was protected under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which gives immunity to websites providing interactive computer services. According to this decision, Dirty World is just a platform displaying the views of a third-party and therefore is not responsible for what was posted. Jones v. Dirty World Entm’t Recordings LLC, 755 F.3d 398 (6th Cir. 2014).
Minc Law Defamation Lawsuit Tip: If you do not know who posted defamatory statements about you because they used a pseudonym or were anonymous, you would need to file a John Doe lawsuit against the poster and subpoena the website to unmask the identity of the anonymous poster.
Can a Defamer Be Held Criminally Liable?
Even if you do discover the identity of the defamer and the court finds them guilty, they will not generally be held criminally liable. While defamation and libel are codified under criminal defamation laws and can give rise to criminal sanctions in some states, they are rarely enforced.
In most cases, the defendant would have a civil judgment made against them, with the possibility of damages being awarded to the plaintiff.
Defamation in Online News Articles
Remedying defamation in news publications and online news articles presents its own set of challenges, given the constitutional and public policy considerations relating to the free press. As a result, there are higher burdens of proof and more defamation defenses that can apply when suing the media for online defamation.
How Can You Prove Defamation in an Online News Article?
The elements needed to prove defamation in a news article would be the same as you would need for any other libel lawsuit. However, there may be additional defenses available to a defendant news publisher, such as fair report privilege.
When Will an Online News Article Be Considered Defamatory?
News publications typically report on matters of public interest. This requires a plaintiff to prove that when the news article was published, it was done so with actual malice, knowledge, or reckless intent that what was being published was false when the news article was published.
What Legal Recourse Do Victims of Fake News Stories Have?
Filing a defamation lawsuit against the news media is rarely successful for a number of reasons. But this does not mean you cannot file a defamation lawsuit. Instead, it means you need to make sure you have a strong case.
At Minc Law, we usually recommend asking the news editors or website managers for a retraction and working with the publisher to have the information removed.
For further reading, make sure to check out our detailed article explaining how to improve your chances of getting an online news article removed.
The Best Ways to Protect Yourself From Online Defamation
In a world where reputations can be attacked with the stroke of a few keys, individuals and businesses need effective strategies to protect themselves against defamation. After all, your online reputation is important for your business, career, and mental well-being.
Perhaps you are job hunting and someone has posted a false statement about you on ShesAHomewrecker or TagtheSponsor. This defamatory statement can put you in the wrong light before you even walk into the interview. Or if you own a business, a single person could post a flurry of fake reviews and cost you thousands of dollars in business if you are not paying attention.
Whatever your situation, being protected from cyber defamation is essential for everyone who has an online presence.
How You Can Protect Yourself Against Online Defamation & Libel?
To protect yourself from online libel, it is best to be as proactive as possible. Keep in mind that the internet is a useful, yet dangerous, place — and act accordingly.
First, avoid commenting on controversial topics. They tend to get heated quickly, and comments can easily be taken out of context. Also, avoid posting or reposting controversial content, as this can open the door for you to be shamed, defamed, or harassed.
Second, keep your online presence locked down. You can do this by:
- Making sure your social profiles are set to private;
- Turning off comments on posts;
- Not allowing your content to be shared;
- If you have a business, making sure you claim your business review page on Google and watch other review platforms;
- Building up a positive review platform now, in case your business is hit with negative or false reviews. The importance of cultivating a positive online review profile for a business cannot be overstated.
Minc Law Online Defamation Tip: Despite your best efforts, online defamation can still occur. But you can minimize its damage by learning about the defamatory statement as quickly as possible. One way to do this is with Google Alerts, which allows users to receive an alert when a certain keyword appears in a Google Search.
Who Can Help You Protect Yourself From Online Defamation?
Ultimately, it is your responsibility to keep yourself protected from online libel. However, there are plenty of businesses and services that can help.
- Online reputation management companies are helpful in suppressing bad search results that take up real estate on the first page of a search engine results page (SERP). They specialize in creating positive content about you or your company to outweigh any negative content about you online.
- Public relations companies can also help you spread positive information about yourself or your business.
- Digital risk protection services can create a comprehensive strategy using online tools and services to mitigate and protect against your digital risk.
- Experienced internet defamation attorneys can help you if your reputation is attacked.
Minc Law is Ready to Help You Combat Internet Defamation
Being defamed online is a wrenching and potentially devastating experience. From a simple social media post or fake online review, you might take a hit to your reputation, career, or business income.
“Darcy Buxton was beyond amazing. She worked diligently and always kept me informed during the process. Thank you for your swift work and professionalism regarding the matter!”
Shakesa, Apr 7, 2020
Minc Law takes defamation very seriously because even though the medium is virtual, the consequences are very real. At Minc Law, we can file an internet defamation lawsuit, remove defamatory and damaging internet content, identify anonymous perpetrators, and partner with you in putting an end to your online attacks.
We are proud to be the nation’s #1 internet defamation law firm. If you have been the victim of online defamation, we are here to help. Contact the online defamation attorneys at Minc Law by calling us at (216) 373-7706, speaking with a chat representative, or filling out our contact form online.