Internet and Social Media Defamation

I commonly receive telephone calls related to internet and social media defamation. The internet and social media are ripe with slanderous statements posted by people who perceive they have absolute anonymity. These posts can impact people’s careers, their families, and their reputation. When I get these calls, I generally consider several questions:

  1. Are the comments defamatory?
  2. Are there valid defences that could be raised by the internet poster?
  3. Do we know who posted the information or could we find out?
  4. If we know who posted the information, are there obstacles that would make pursuing a legal claim impractical?
  5. Does pursuing the poster make financial sense?

Are the Comments Defamatory?

It is not hard to prove that a comment is defamatory. Basically, you need to prove that a statement was made that would negatively impact a person’s reputation. It should be kept in mind that a random, negative comment such as “I hate that guy” or “He sucks” may not negatively impact someone’s reputation. It really depends on context, including where the comments are posted.

Are there valid defences that could be raised by the internet poster?

There are many possible defences to defamation claims. Some of the most common in internet cases are:

  1. Justification (truth); and
  2. Fair comment (opinion).

Truth is a defence to a defamation claim. Truth can sometimes be hard to prove if a poster does not have first-hand knowledge about what they are posting about. If they are reliant on the statements made by others, there is an open question as to whether that third party will actually back up the claims if push comes to shove in a court proceeding. The poster has the onus of proving the truth of the comments.

Defamation law also protects people from expressing opinions if those opinions are based on “true facts”. For instance, if someone posts a negative review for a restaurant because they did not like their meal, the poster’s opinion is protected. On the other hand, if the poster has a grudge against the restaurant owner and did not actually eat there, but then posts a negative review pretending like they had a bad meal, those comments are not protected by “fair comment” because the comments are not based on “true facts”.

Do we know who posted the information or could we find out?

A practical problem with the internet is that a lot of comments are made anonymously or under a pseudonym. In many cases, a person can seek a court order to require the website or social media company to provide details as to the IP address and the registration information for the poster, but that does not always reveal the actual poster. Thus, there can sometimes be some practical barriers to pursuing information about the poster. Also, obtaining a court order to reveal a poster’s name can be an expensive proposition.

If we know who posted the information, are there obstacles that would make pursuing a legal claim impractical?

One of the main obstacles with defamation cases is where the poster is located. If the poster is in Canada, a defamation claim is relatively straightforward. However, if the poster is a non-Canadian, there can be practical issues associated with pursuing that person, depending on the jurisdiction.

The United States is particularly difficult because of the SPEECH Act (Securing the Protection of our Enduring and Established Constitutional Heritage Act). This Act makes foreign libel judgments (including Canadian judgments) largely unenforceable in U.S. courts. The SPEECH Act also generally makes it so that a U.S. company can ignore a Canadian order requiring disclosure of a poster’s identity.

In addition to jurisdiction issues, a court proceeding is public. Some people do not want the potential exposure and publicity associated with starting a court action. Thus, it may not make sense to start a court proceeding if the internet posting is likely to fade from public consciousness quickly.

Does pursuing the poster make financial sense?

This is a major consideration in any defamation case. The cost of obtaining orders to disclose a person’s identity coupled with the cost of starting a legal action can sometimes exceed what the court might award for damages. In Saskatchewan, we have had “successful” defamation cases where a plaintiff was awarded $10,000-20,000. Likely, the legal costs exceeded that amount of money in those cases. I generally also question whether the poster has any money to pay a judgment.

However, there are cases where a person might have lost a job or business, where the damages might be significant. In a recent case, a Saskatchewan court ordered $240,000 in damages for posting false information on a website.

Conclusion

Internet defamation cases are increasing, and they are complex. Our legal team at Robertson Stromberg LLP would be happy to assist you with any advice that you need in pursuing or defending against an internet defamation case.

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Area of Expertise Internet and Social Media Defamation