Print journalists have a duty to report the truth, especially when a report may contain something negative towards a business or an individual.
If a comment is published that is false, an individual or business can sue for defamation, as it is slander of their character. However, whereas with print it is easy to track down the person/journalist or media platform responsible for the defamatory comment, on the internet it is a whole different story.
For example Louis Walsh sued The Sun in 2011 after they published a false story in their newspaper alleging that Walsh had sexually assaulted a man in the toilets of a Dublin club. Walsh then took legal action against the Murdoch group, which is owned by media mogul Rupert Murdoch, suing for damages of more than £400,000. The man in question, who had made the false claim about Walsh sexually assaulting him, was jailed for 6 months, with Walsh later settling the libel action against the Sun after they offered him £400,000.
This case, as well as many others, shows that if a defamatory comment is published in a newspaper or magazine, and the claimant can prove the comments are false, they will be able to sue for damages, usually resulting in a substantial pay check. However, is it as simple as this when suing for defamatory comments made online?
In 2012 Lord McAlpine was made the subject of false child abuse allegations. The allegations started after a former North Wales care home resident claimed he’d been sexually abused by a senior politician of the Thatcher era. Although the politician wasn’t named, people immediately began speculating with Lord McAlpine being the politician they focused on. Although there was absolutely no proof at this point that McAlpine had anything to do with the allegations his name began to flood Twitter, with thousands of people commenting on the matter, insinuating they thought he was guilty. Although it could be claimed people were only voicing their opinions, they essentially made an innocent man appear guilty, turning his life upside down. McAlpine, who was distraught after being wrongly accused and having his reputation tarnished, later stated that he intended to sue over 10,000 Twitter users for their false allegations. However, as time went on the amount of Twitter users he intended to sue decreased, until eventually ended his legal pursuit completely.
The Lord McAlpine case shows the power, and potential danger, that social media platforms, such as Twitter and Facebook have. Rumours can spread in a matter of minutes, and with hundreds, sometimes even thousands, re-tweeting, sharing or liking posts, rumours can very quickly escalate. This outlines how social media is able to flout the current laws, as it can sometimes be impossible to sue the amount of people that have published a defamatory comment online, even though more people have access to seeing the comments online than they would if it was published in print.
Defamatory comments can ruin a person’s reputation and sometimes even their lives. As the internet is still uncensored and un-regulated it is imperative that you monitor your online presence, checking Google for your name, or your companies name, and even setting up alerts to see if anything new arises. This way if you come across something damaging or untrue action can be taken to either remove the content completely or hide it from view. Igniyte are experts in this line of work and have a dedicated team who specialise in all aspects of online reputation management, from privacy laws to in-depth SEO.