There has been dramatic changes in how we communicate since the arrival of the internet and social media. Whether by email, blog posts, Twitter, or a chat room, the potential for libellous statements and defamatory statements are immense.
Online tensions may simply be the result of a disagreement. There is also the potential for a significant impact on the reputation of both individuals and businesses.
The number of cases requiring the assistance of reputation management teams or a social media lawyer is rising. With the increasing use of online mediums, there is no immediate sign of that decreasing any time soon.
What is Defamation?
Defamation is based on common law, specifically the Defamation Act 2013 and when someone makes a false and damaging statement about someone else. However, it’s not always the case that a false and damaging comment is a defamatory statement.
For that to be the outcome, it must meet each one of the following four criteria:
- It must be published to a third party
This requires that a statement is made public. So, to meet this first criterion, the detail must have been shared with someone else, verbally or in writing.
- It must be false a statement
A statement is only considered to be false if it is untrue and intended to create a false impression. This is through negligence or with a malicious motive. This then means that expressing your opinion is not usually something that is regarded to be defamatory; commenting on someone’s dress style, for example, wouldn’t usually be considered as defamatory as it is merely the opinion of the writer.
- It must cause serious harm to the claimant
It’s not enough for a statement to be made and to then decide that defamation libel has taken place. The defamation needs to be sufficiently serious that there is reputational damage. If the statement has been made about a business, they will need to show the financial impact that has or may be created.
- There must be no defamation privilege in place.
There are some situations where statements are immune from the risk of being sued for defamation. Examples include when testifying in court and warning others about danger.
Once it’s clear that the statement meets these four requirements, it will fall into one of two different defamation categories: libel or slander.
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What is the Difference Between Libel and Slander?
Libel relates to written or fixed statements
Slander refers to spoken or oral statements made to a third party.
Malicious falsehood is also worth mentioning because it does overlap with defamation. In this situation, a malicious statement is made causing damage to someone else but may not result in reputational damage. Stating a company's name and declaring that they don't offer a particular service, for example, could cause business loss. But it may not impact their reputation.
What is Internet defamation?
The internet provides a fantastic platform to connect with others and share our thoughts and opinions. And while this has enormous benefits, it can also create a somewhat blinkered view of how online communication can cause seemingly irreparable damage to an individual or business’s reputation. Comments in chat rooms, on Facebook, or the publication of unsubstantiated information on website posts, can result in thousands of views within seconds of publication.
The primary form of communication on the internet is via the written word. It then falls to libel’s legal powers to offer restitution for those who have been on the receiving end of damaging defamatory statements.
Who is Responsible for Online Defamation?
When someone intentionally creates and publishes material specifically intended to lie about or misrepresent you, then it’s evident that the author takes responsibility. But, when the internet becomes entangled in the situation, there could well be other parties who may also find themselves named within the defamation libel case.
So, with that in mind, we have the person who posted the comment. But what about the individual who set-up and moderates the chat room? How about the internet service provider (ISP) and the search engine? The harmful material will likely pass through the ‘hands’ of several different people as it makes its way through the world wide web’s entanglement.
Whoever wrote the libellous Facebook post, tweet on Twitter or blog post, etc. is primarily responsible. But others also have responsibilities if they want to avoid a legal issue such as an online defamation claim. For example, the website hosting company may be liable if they don’t act promptly to remove material once they have been notified by an internet lawyer or law firm, and if they are unable to identify whoever posted the statement.
Search engines such as Google and Bing have been involved in complex online defamation cases in which defamation law has attempted to decide whether they should take responsibility for the results given within search results.
What can you do if someone slanders you online?
The internet provides a fantastic resource of information. Without it, it is now difficult to imagine just how we'd get through our daily lives. For some, the continual attention of online trolls, harassment and defamation, it becomes a less attractive place to spend time.
Now if we were to be picky here, we would need to remind you that slander refers to the spoken word and libel to the written. So, if it relates to the online context, then what you probably need to know is what you can do if someone makes libellous statements about you online.
Defamation laws are not always easy to interpret. So, when considering legal action, it is essential to seek out expert advice through a consultation with a social media lawyer, social media solicitor or a reputation management company. They will be able to examine the issues facing their clients and review the offending content to assess what their options might be. They will also be able to decide if a defamatory statement has been made.
It can be challenging for people to decide who to approach to take on a case should they need to go down the legal route, however ensuring that the company is authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority is an excellent first step.
Removal of Defamatory Content
The removal of the offending content to prevent further damage must take the highest priority. Solicitors or an online reputation manager will approach the individual who posted the material online and request its removal. At this stage, they will also contact the website operator or the company hosting the website to make them aware of their liability towards the online defamation and the legal options open to their clients.
It’s not unusual to achieve resolution at this point, with the rapid removal of the content. The last thing anyone wants is legal action and having to face a social media lawyer.
If they refuse to take the material down from view on the internet, then that’s when it may be time to move to the next level and step towards the legal side of options to resolve the situation.
Can you Sue for Slander on the Internet?
It only takes a glance of a social media platform such as Facebook, to be able to spot derogatory comments which might cause offence or hurt to an individual. However, on most occasions, they quickly become buried and forgotten without needing further action.
Then there are the times when a serious claim goes viral reaching a vast audience through being shared, re-tweeted and liked. Now the potential damage can be significant. It’s important to know that the intent behind the defamatory content has little bearing on whether there is a case to be answered.
So, whether it was a deliberate attempt to discredit an individual or a business, a post made in anger or the sharing of what was thought to be fact, it makes no difference to the rights of the subject to pursue an internet defamation court order.
It is worth noting that while the legitimacy of online defamation claims is not decided upon by the scale of publication, but, the more people who have seen the information, then the greater the risk to reputation is likely to be. Therefore, information sent through to the email address of a handful of people is unlikely to cause the scale of the problem which its publication on an online news website seen by thousands.
The Future of Online Defamation
It’s thought that there is low public awareness around the risks associated with committing internet defamation. Meanwhile, the publication of rumours and misinformation posted as fact, is rife, making it challenging for the internet user to know whether the detail they share is accurate and risk-free.
As the number of online defamation cases increases, solicitors, the reputation management company and their clients will be taking swift action to reduce the potentially devastating impact that internet defamation can cause.