What Is Online Defamation? When Social Media Insults Go Too Far Featured Image

What Is Online Defamation? When Social Media Insults Go Too Far

We all know misinformation spreads across the internet with ease, often before we even realize it’s happening. Gossip and lies are difficult to remove and can cause lasting harm to our reputation, emotions, and finances. Harmful content can spread on public forums like Reddit and Quora, social media sites like Twitter, Instagram, TikTok, and Facebook, as well as consumer review platforms like Google, Yelp, and Indeed.

In this ultimate guide, we’ll tell you what online defamation is, how to identify when you are defamed online and how online defamation law can protect you and help you fight back against online lies.

What Is Online Defamation?

Online defamation, also known as “internet defamation” or “cyber-libel”, is any false statement shared via the internet and seen by others that results in damage to a person’s personal or professional reputation.

To be considered online defamation, a statement must meet the following key elements:

  • Published: The statement must be communicated to at least one other person, either in writing (libel) or verbally (slander). It can occur on social media, websites, forums, and other digital platforms.
  • False: The statement must be demonstrably false, not merely an opinion. However, an opinion can be defamatory if it implies a false assertion of fact.
  • Harmful: The statement must harm the person’s reputation. This harm can include losing business, having trouble finding a job, feeling embarrassed in public, or cause emotional distress.
  • Not protected: The statement cannot be shielded by legal privileges (exemptions), like statements made in government proceedings or certain employer communications.
  • Fault: The party making the false statement must have acted negligently or with actual malice (knowledge of falsity or reckless disregard for the truth).

Let’s look at some real life examples of online defamation that Minc Law has successfully dealt with.

Are you being defamed online? We will get it removed. Contact Minc Law today!

Real Life Examples of Online Defamation

Example 1 – False Accusations of Medical Malpractice

John, a local dentist, was targeted by a disgruntled former employee, Karen. On a popular health forum, Karen wrote a post falsely claiming that John was reusing syringes between patients, a statement that is demonstrably false and provably so through clinic records and procedures. This post was viewed and shared by multiple users, including John’s patients. Karen, who understood the gravity of her claims, acted with malice, intending to harm John’s reputation due to a personal vendetta.

As a result, John’s dental practice saw a significant downturn in patients, with many cancelling appointments and others leaving negative reviews, citing Karen’s claims as the reason. John had to hire a public relations firm to manage the fallout, and his practice suffered substantial financial losses.

Example 2 – False Accusations of Tax Fraud

A small business owner, Alice, fell victim to online defamation when a competitor, Tom, set up a fake news website. Tom published an article on the site claiming that Alice’s company was under investigation for tax fraud, which was entirely untrue. He then promoted this article on social media platforms, which led to it being picked up by local news aggregators, spreading the false information further.

The intent to deceive was clear, as Tom created a fabricated news story to look credible. Alice’s business experienced immediate repercussions, including lost contracts and a sharp decline in customers. She was also subjected to a real, though unwarranted, tax audit due to these rumors, which caused additional financial and emotional strain.

Examples That Are NOT Online Defamation

Example 1 – Statement of Opinion

Jane, a real estate agent, was criticized on Twitter by a local homeowner, Bob, who was dissatisfied after attending one of her open houses. Bob tweeted, “Jane’s open house was poorly organized and not up to the neighborhood standard.”

Although this statement was negative, it was Bob’s subjective opinion based on his personal experience and was not making a false statement about Jane’s professional services. Moreover, there was no significant harm to Jane’s reputation or business; while a few prospects discussed Bob’s tweet, it did not deter new clients from seeking her services, nor could any financial harm be directly tied to the communication.

Example 2 – False Statement That Did Not Cause Harm

In a local community Facebook group, Emily commented on a post about the opening of a new restaurant, stating, “I heard from a friend that Mark’s Grill failed its health inspection.” Emily’s comment was based on a rumor she heard, and while she negligently didn’t verify the information before sharing, a simple search would show that Mark’s Grill had, in fact, passed all inspections.

Emily’s comment, although incorrect, did not rise to the level of defamation because it didn’t reach a wide audience and there was no evidence that it caused any measurable damage to the restaurant. The comment remained largely unnoticed, and the opening of Mark’s Grill was successful without any adverse effects on its reputation or profits.

In light of these examples, discerning whether an online statement qualifies as defamation can be nuanced and challenging. It is prudent to engage with an attorney who is well-versed in defamation law to thoroughly examine the specifics of your case.

First Steps to Take If You’ve Been Defamed Online

A lawyer can help you understand your rights and advise you on what to do if harmful information has damaged your reputation. They can also assist you if you have experienced emotional pain or financial losses as a result.

If you are unable to speak with a lawyer immediately, there are still ways to address the issue on your own. You can take the following steps to minimize the impact of the harmful content and safeguard your rights:

  • Identify the source of the defamatory material. Determine if the harmful content is from someone you know, such as a former coworker, business partner, or customer. Also, check if the author is using a fake name or posting anonymously. Talking privately with the publisher in a calm manner could help resolve the issue without escalating it.
  • Refrain from creating a digital footprint by responding to the defamation. It may be tempting to retaliate or reply to to the false comments online. However, doing so can escalate the situation by attracting more attention to the harmful content. It can also encourage the person to keep spreading false information.
  • Secure evidence of the defamatory statements. Take a screenshot of the offensive content. Include who posted it and where it was posted for full context. If you decide to take legal action later, having this evidence will help prove your claim.
  • Report the offensive content to the host platform or website. Many online services and user-driven websites have established Terms of Service that govern acceptable content. If a statement spreads lies and breaks the rules, you can report it to the website admins to have it removed.
  • Keep a detailed record of the defamation’s effects. This could involve noting the engagement levels on a social media post, such as the count of “likes,” comments, or shares. Keep emails, texts, and notes about the post. Write down any conversations mentioning the harmful content.

Legal Options for Victims of Online Defamation

When dealing with online lies, it’s important to think about your legal options. Think about the costs, risks, and benefits of each option, then create a plan that aligns with your specific goals and situation.

Common legal options for addressing online defamation include:

  • Demand Letter: Send a cease and desist letter to the defamer, demanding removal of the content and threatening legal action if they fail to comply. This approach can be effective for quickly removing content and avoiding costly litigation.
  • Content Removal Request: Submit formal requests to websites, search engines, or social media platforms to remove defamatory content that violates their terms of service or content policies. This may involve flagging the content, providing evidence of its falsity, and demonstrating the harm caused.
  • Injunction: Seek a court order requiring the defamer to remove the false content and refrain from future defamatory statements. Injunctions are a strong legal solution, but usually need proof of serious harm.
  • Monetary Damages: Pursuing compensatory and punitive damages through a defamation lawsuit to hold the defamer accountable and recover for the harm caused. Damages can include lost profits, reputational injury, and emotional distress.
  • Alternative Claims: Exploring alternative legal claims, such as invasion of privacy, intentional infliction of emotional distress, or unfair trade practices, that may provide additional avenues for relief and recovery.

Your right approach will depend on factors such as the nature and severity of the defamation, the identity and location of the defamer, the platforms involved, and your ultimate objectives. An experienced defamation attorney can help you assess your options and craft a strategic plan tailored to your needs.

Frequently Asked Questions About Online Defamation

I Don’t Know Who Is Defaming Me. Can I Do Anything?

In instances where you’re faced with defamatory content but the identity of the publisher is unknown, a John Doe lawsuit can be pursued. This type of legal action involves suing unnamed defendants—referred to as “John Doe”—allowing the case to proceed while you seek to uncover the anonymous party’s identity.

During the lawsuit, legal mechanisms such as discovery subpoenas can be utilized to compel internet service providers (ISPs), website administrators, or social media platforms to reveal the anonymous poster’s identity, given the court’s approval.

Once the individual is identified, they can be named as the defendant, and the lawsuit can then move forward to address the defamation itself.

Can I Put an Online Defamer in Jail?

No, you cannot put an online defamer in jail through a civil defamation lawsuit. Defamation is typically treated as a civil matter, not a criminal one, meaning that the legal remedies involve monetary compensation rather than criminal penalties like imprisonment. Civil lawsuits for defamation are intended to restore the wronged party’s reputation through financial restitution and, potentially, public correction of the false statement.

Can I Sue Facebook or Other Social Media Platforms for Online Defamation?

Under current United States law, specifically Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act (CDA), you cannot typically sue social media platforms like Facebook for defamation based on the content posted by their users. This key piece of internet legislation provides immunity to online service providers from being held liable for the words of third parties who use their services. The rationale is that these platforms serve as intermediaries and are not the publishers or speakers of the content created by their users.

While platforms like Facebook are protected by Section 230, the law does not extend this immunity to the actual creators of defamatory content. If someone posts a defamatory statement on social media, the person defamed may pursue a civil lawsuit against the individual who published the false and damaging information.

How Much Can I Claim for Defamation of Character?

The monetary awards in defamation cases can range from nominal amounts to substantial figures that reach into the millions of dollars, reflecting the varying motivations and outcomes in defamation litigation. Some individuals pursue defamation lawsuits primarily to vindicate their reputations rather than for financial gain.

Is Suing for Online Defamation Hard?

The process to sue for online defamation involves rigorous legal strategy, collection of evidence, witness testimony, and possible challenges to free speech protections. Defamation lawsuits can also be costly and time-consuming, often requiring the expertise of an attorney specializing in defamation law.

Understanding these challenges, many choose to seek alternative resolutions, such as a retraction or apology, or use reputation management services instead. However, in cases where the defamation is particularly egregious and harmful, a lawsuit might be the most appropriate and effective course of action to rectify the situation and seek redress for damages.

You Don’t Have to Face Online Defamation Alone

If you’re facing online defamation, don’t suffer in silence. Take action today and schedule a confidential consultation with one of our skilled defamation attorneys.

We’ll listen to your story, assess your legal options, and develop a tailored strategy to help you remove the false content and hold the defamers accountable. Together, we can help you reclaim your online reputation and your peace of mind. To learn more and set up a consultation for experienced legal advice, fill out our online contact form or call us at 216-373-7706.

This page has been peer-reviewed, fact-checked, and edited by qualified attorneys to ensure substantive accuracy and coverage.

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