The issue of defamation has been in the news a lot over the last few years. It seems like every week a new high-profile case is filed. Sarah Palin lost a high-profile case against the New York Times recently. Smartmatic and Dominion Voting Systems have newsworthy cases pending against Mike Lindell and Sidney Powell. The trial for Johnny Depp suit against his ex, Amber Heard, is happening soon in 2022. Cardi B. just won a big judgment against YouTube vlogger Latasha Kebe for claiming that the rapper contracted herpes and had taken hard drugs. The headlines go on and on.
It’s one thing for a celebrity or politician with an expensive legal team to sue a foe, but for the average individual the online environment can seem like the wild, wild west where trolls – some of whom you know - get away with saying just about anything. You need only scroll through a typical Twitter feed or Facebook page to see countless insults and accusations. Perhaps you’ve been a victim of false and derogatory accusations on social media or the internet. What can you do? Let’s look at what defamation is and what your options are for taking action.
What is Defamation?
“Defamation,” commonly referred to as “defamation of character” is the general term for the spoken, written, or published communication of a false assertion of fact to a third-party, which subsequently causes injury or damage to another person’s reputation. Defamation is classified as a civil wrong, meaning that defamation victims may sue to recover damages for the harm and injury suffered due to a false statement.
Specifically, defamation may be broken down into two basic types:
Slander: a spoken communication of a false assertion of fact to a third-party, which causes damage or injury to another person’s reputation.
Libel: a written or published (think social media posts, videos, photographs) communication of a false assertion of fact to a third-party, which causes damage or injury to another person’s reputation.
Social Media Defamation
Social media defamation is a term used to describe content that is published to a social media platform that defames a person or business. This type of defamation is also commonly referred to as libel, cyber defamation, disparagement, character assassination, cyberbullying, and cyber harassment.
The most common social media platforms where defamation can occur include:
Social media use has exploded in the last ten years. As of 2022, the average daily social media usage of internet users worldwide amounted to 147 minutes per day, up from 145 minutes in the previous year. With social media becoming so instrumental to how we interact with one another in the modern era, it makes sense that the attempt to harm an individual’s (or business’) reputation on social media can have very real and far-reaching effects.
Examples of Social Media Defamation
Some of the most common ways in which someone can be defamed on social media include:
A post published on an individual’s Facebook profile
A post published in a Facebook group
A tweet published on an individual’s Twitter profile
Fake reviews on Facebook business pages
Comments on a post, video, or tweet
A video on TikTok
A photo and/or caption on Instagram or
A video posted to YouTube
Pennsylvania Defamation Law
Under Pennsylvania defamation law, a communication will be considered defamatory if it “tends so to harm the reputation of [the complaining party] as to lower him in the estimation of the community or to deter third persons from associating or dealing with him.” MacElree v. Philadelphia Newspapers, 544 Pa. 117, 124-125 (Pa. 1996).
In order for Pennsylvania defamation plaintiffs to succeed in their claim, they must prove the following seven (7) elements:
The defamatory character of the communication
Its publication by the defendant
Its application to the plaintiff
The understanding by the recipient of its defamatory meaning
The understanding by the recipient of it as intended to be applied to the plaintiff
Special harm resulting to the plaintiff from its publication
Abuse of a conditionally privileged occasion
Assuming the Plaintiff is successful in proving the above elements, in order to successfully defend a defamation claim, a Defendant must prove:
The truth of the defamatory communication;
The privileged character of the occasion on which it was published; or
The character of the subject matter of the defamatory comment was a public concern.
Pennsylvania defamation law is highly nuanced and complex. We strongly recommend you consult one of our experienced defamation lawyers in order to explore your legal options.
Steps You Can Take If You Are a Victim of Social Media Defamation
Being a victim of social media defamation is stressful and embarrassing. When you have been the victim of social media defamation, it is important to take certain actions and avoid others. We recommend the following course of action to stop online defamation, restore your reputation, and fight back:
Report the offensive post. Report the post to the online company where it was posted and ask that it be removed. Most platforms, like Twitter and Facebook allow you to flag or report an offensive post.
Do not respond to the defamer. Although it’s understandable that you’d feel like retaliating in kind, this is not a good idea and it’ll be ineffective. Responding will only give the defamer an opportunity to republish or enhance the defamatory content. It may also serve to draw additional interest to the offensive post (ala a cat fight).
Do not engage in a self-defense campaign. This may seem counter-intuitive but most efforts to defend yourself will serve only to spread the offensive post even further. Outside of a simple reply such as “this post is false and defamatory and should be removed” its usually not helpful to embark on an online defense campaign.
Preserve and save the content. Take a screenshot of the web page or a particular post by using the snipping tool (a Microsoft Windows screenshot utility) or simply clicking the CTRL+PrtScr button (prt sc) on a Windows PC. You can do that on a Mac. This option will enable you to capture a complete picture of the post or content in question, along with any accompanying comments. After that, save the page in a Word document or in PDF. Make sure all screenshots either add or include the date and actual time stamped. In addition to taking screenshots, you can also save the whole webpage. For instance, if you use Google Chrome, you can save the website in question and timestamp it. To do this, click the CTRL+S buttons to save the webpage in the HTML version. The date and time will be stored in the saved file. Remember that for evidence to be usable, it has to be clear, readable and well presented.
Send evidence preservation letters. Your defamation attorney is the person who should send these on your behalf. They will be sent to the defamer and everyone else who might have information or documents relating to the social media defamation case. Its very important to send these early in your case to preserve evidence that will be needed to make your case.
Block the user. If you simply do not want to see the offensive posts, try blocking the user.
Can You Sue Someone for Defamation on Social Media?
Absolutely, you can sue for social media defamation. However, while it may seem natural to want to sue the social media platform for defamation, your best option is to file a defamation lawsuit against the individual poster or commenter. If you are the target of social media defamation, you may not know how to tackle the problem or where to turn for help. Our experienced attorneys can help. Contact us for a free case evaluation today.