Laws regarding defamation were created long before the internet was invented, thus causing a plethora of problems for judges trying to apply decades-old law to modern day dilemmas. It is dysfunctional, creating a grey area when it comes to social media and defamation. Defamation laws are a little late, they have not had a chance to catch up with the times. The era of technology in which we live has created a world in which information can be published with the click of a button. Can defamation law really keep up with the vast, instantaneous entity that is social media? Nevertheless, as people increasingly rely on the internet as a source of information, we will see a positive correlation with the number of online libel lawsuits.
Though it might serve as a surprise, lawsuits have been filed against blogger and twitter users. If a person publishes a false statement via social media that negatively affects the person named, this constitutes a libel case. What we need to remember, however, is that cases such as these are not unlike defamation cases of the past–the truly successful ones have been filed against information sources reaching many followers. For instance in 2011, an NBA referee sued The Associated Press because one of its reporters tweeted a statement he believed to be untrue and detrimental to his career (it was settled out of court). It is unlikely that an untrue tweet made by an individual, not tied to a large corporation or organization, will make a big enough impact to be regarded as libelous. Hear the sigh of relief from all those Twitter users out there? I think so.
On the other hand, some review website users of sites like TripAdvisor, Angie’s List, and Yelp have experienced legal backlash from the businesses they wrote seering reviews about. Some believe this goes against the American right to free speech, while the burned businesses believe it to be libel. A Washington Post article describes how one woman’s angry Yelp review turned into a legal battle.
What about social media providers?
The Communications Decency Act of 1996 protects social media providers from liability for any statements made by its individual users. It was originally created to combat pornographic and adult content being published freely on the internet, but now applies to internet libel cases.
The Problem with Determining Damages
Because of the internet’s mammoth size, plaintiffs in defamation cases claim that libelous statements have the ability to reach unmeasurable numbers of people. They make it seem as if defamatory information reaches the whole world, and thus persuading juries to award inflated amounts of punitive damages. Yet most social media users’ reach is limited to their small community of followers. Even though a statement might be proven libelous, the fact that it has been published on the internet usually does not equate to its status as world-read media.
Libel cases via social media are still fairly new, it will take time to see if determining cases like these will become more standard. Because social media is not filtered like ‘reliable’ news sources, and users tend to rant grievances on the internet, it is very likely that untrue statements run rampid. However, other qualifications must be met to deem statements defamatory– the comments must reach followers and ultimately hurt a person/business monetarily or socially. Bottom line, most people do not need to worry about making a defamatory statement via social media; we do have the right to free speech. But when it maliciously reaches enough people to hinder a person’s life or business, libel laws could apply.
About the Author
Kristen Valek blogs for Alamo Injury Attorneys, a personal injury law firm located in San Antonio, Texas. Kristen thinks people should be careful about what they say on social media.