Defamation & Slander on the Internet: Legal Issues

With the popularity of the internet and social media sites, defamation claims now often stem from statements made online.

A typical defamation case involves a false statement made about a person and "published" to others, resulting in harm to reputation or some other kind of damage. Publication can mean in the traditional sense, such as via newspaper articles, or by more limited means, such as oral communication to one or two other people. Whether grand or small in scope, publication has occurred if the statement has been communicated to a third party.  Damage to the plaintiff (the person who is the subject of the statement)  could be in the form of loss of good reputation, loss of business, loss of money, or even damage to health.  

(See this article on defamation law for the basic elements necessary to make a defamation claim).

But what happens when the false statement is made in an even larger context than, for example, being published in the local paper? What if it is conveyed over the Internet?

Our increasing reliance on the Internet for even basic communication and social networking has created a number of interesting legal issues. In the defamation context, this includes figuring out who has harmed us and who has read the statements. Although publication is a given if a statement appears on the Internet, those other elements may be difficult or even impossible to prove.

Social Networking Sites

Of course, if the statement is made in a public social forum such as Facebook or Twitter, it is much easier to determine the identity of the speaker. You may not know the reach of the damaging statements about you -- because who is able to see the statement will depend on the speaker's privacy settings for their Facebook or Twitter account -- but it is fairly simple to prove who said it, and it is obvious that the statement was indeed published.

Blogs and Other Public Media Sites

Building your defamation claim gets trickier when it comes to web pages such as blogs or public media sites, including online newspapers or magazines. Bloggers may be transparent, or they may choose to keep their identities anonymous in order to protect themselves. Accordingly, it may be very hard to determine who has published a statement if it appears on someone's blog.

This gets even more difficult when it comes to comments that readers can leave on blogs or on online news articles. Most sites do not require people to use their real names or to provide identifying information such as name, location, or email address. Even if they do, people could provide false information so they are difficult to track.

If you believe you have been defamed on a site such as a blog, a smart first step would be to contact the blogger and ask him to remove the statement, whether the blogger or a reader made it. Bloggers do retain control over the content of their sites, and they can always delete harmful comments. Doing this may alleviate the problem before it gets out of control. The same is true for other Internet service providers -- although they typically are not legally liable for material published by others on their sites, they may be able to remove it or help you find out who published it.

A Problem That Is Large in Scope

Once a defamatory statement is published on the Internet, the damage is usually done. Even content that is later removed may be found by diligent searchers. But, on the bright side, proving publication is easy, and if you must prove harm to reputation, that may be done simply by saving and printing any negative comments left by people who read the defamatory story.

Because false statements can reach hundreds or thousands of individuals at once when they are published online, it is important that a remedy exist for those who suffer online defamation. A defamatory statement on a blog may be read by a large number of people, and then shared via email or sites like Facebook, increasing the publication -- and the damage -- exponentially.

When the damage done to the defamed is significant, quantifiable, and documented, a lawsuit for defamation may arise.