Social Networking Fuels Rise in Defamation Cases

Dennis Faas's picture

A significant increase in the number of Internet-related defamation cases in England and Wales has been blamed on social networks such as Facebook and Twitter.

Law firm Sweet and Maxwell noted that the number of libel cases specifically referring to online postings rose from 7 to 16 between June 2010 and May 2011.

Though that may seem low, this only includes cases that actually make it to trial, which is relatively rare given the high legal costs involved. Overall, there were only 86 such trials, meaning nearly one in five now involve the Internet rather than newspapers or other mainstream media.

Bogus Info Goes Worldwide in a Flash

A lawyer specializing in media issues told the BBC the rise in court cases reflected a growing problem with false information rapidly spreading from user to user and from site to site.

Korieh Duodo said one major problem was that most sites and services have very weak policies when it comes to posting messages. Many allow a user to post anything they want, and only remove a note once a protest has been made. (Source:

It's hardly a preventative strategy, but for many major sites such a policy is the only practical way of dealing with the huge amount of content users post.

Duodo also warned that the trend for journalists to use social media postings as sources for stories increases the chances of defamation in newspapers and broadcast shows if they don't take extra steps to verify information.

Tweets And Facebook Postings Flout Court Orders

The figures showed that businesses are more likely to sue for defamation, while the number of celebrity cases is on the decline. Ironically, that's partially because of a tactic that itself is being undermined by the Internet.

Not only are many celebrities now taking out pre-emptive injunctions to stop contentious articles being published, but some have also been granted a so-called "super-injunction" that prevents journalists from even mentioning the injunction itself -- which can tip off readers that a celebrity has something to hide.

The problem is that while journalists respect the rulings for fear of the legal consequences, once the identity of those concerned gets into the rumor-mill, it often quickly appears online and is immediately repeated by thousands of users.

Not only does that create legal questions about the liability of people in other countries who reveal the details, but it also creates a situation where every English-speaking user who repeats the story is technically breaking the law. (Source:

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