COMBINE the recent widespread availability of affordable internet connectivity with the almost universal access to smartphones. The result: wide open doors into the amazing world of social media – Facebook, Instagram, Snapchat, Twitter etc.
Social media has transformed the way we communicate. Our thoughts can be broadcast instantly to many with ease… perhaps a bit too easily.
While this relatively new phenomenon has enriched us with a greater freedom to express ourselves, it must be exercised responsibly and with caution. Why? Well, if you say something online that’s damaging to someone’s reputation, you may be opening yourself to a lawsuit for defamation of character. If you lose that lawsuit, you may have to find a lot of money to pay in compensation for the damage you caused.
Defamation is the act of communicating false statements presented as facts about a person to others. The statements must tend to lower the victim in the estimation of right-thinking members of society generally.
Say you post online that “John Doe is a car thief,” but you knew this statement was not true or you were reckless or negligent about whether or not it was true. If this statement damages John Doe’s reputation or ability to work, a judge may order you to compensate John Doe for defaming him.
Defamation falls into two main types: written or verbal. The written form is called “libel” and the verbal form is known as “slander.”
A defamatory statement made online will be considered libel. You can be sued for libel even if you did not name the person you are defaming, once the person you spoke of can be identified from your statements.
Posting your opinions on social media are generally not considered capable of defamation. An opinion is something that cannot be said to be true or false – it is simply your opinion. So, if you post on Facebook: “I think John Doe is a jerk!” this is your opinion, a bit rude of you, but you are entitled to your opinion.
On the other hand, if you wrongly imply someone did something bad, but phrase it in terms of an opinion, e.g. “I think John Doe is a car thief” this may be interpreted by a court to be defamatory. You’re implying John Doe is in fact a car thief and you want others to know of his criminal actions.
You may have noticed members of the media being very careful to use the word “allegedly” when speaking of crimes committed by accused persons. This is meant to prevent the writer of the article from being sued for defaming the accused as they would just be reporting the accusation.
Now, speaking the truth is an absolute defence to any allegation of defamation. But, here’s the catch – you have to be able to prove it.
If you are in the unhappy position of being found liable to pay damages to someone for defaming them, your victim can be compensated for distress, hurt feelings and any actual injury to reputation. The amount you are ordered to pay can also be quantified as an outward and visible sign of vindication to your victim.
Messages and posts are capable of being viewed by an unlimited audience. You may try to limit your audience, but the risk could still exist that persons outside that pool may see it, particularly with re-posts.
A larger number of viewers could translate into a larger figure being awarded as compensation for the victim’s loss of reputation.
Be wary too, even if you are not the author of the post or tweet by re-posting or re-tweeting it you may be seen as endorsing the false post or tweet.
Deleting an online statement may not save you either. It may affect the amount of monetary compensation you may have to pay due to reduced visibility of the post, but the damage may have already been done.
Whenever you decide to respond to or make a statement about someone else on social media platforms, perhaps you should pause for a moment before clicking “POST.”
Are you going to say something negative about that person? Unless you are stating your opinion, is your statement something you know and can prove to be true?
If not, it may be safer to delete that post.
© Neela Ramsundar, LL.B (HONS), L.E.C is a Civil Litigation Attorney at Law & Certified Mediator
Disclaimer: The contents of this article is for general informative purposes only. It does not provide legal advice and does not create an attorney – client relationship. For legal advice, please contact an Attorney-at-Law of your choosing directly.