Online defamation can lead to legal problems
With nearly worldwide access to social media, virtually anyone can have a platform and a mass audience with whom to share ideas. And that means virtually anyone can find themselves, unwittingly or otherwise, liable for defamation.
Publishing defamatory or libelous statements can have serious consequences. You may find yourself a defendant in a lawsuit. And if found civilly liable, you may be required to pay damages or take other court-enforced actions.
Ways to avoid online defamation
In this case, your best defense is knowing how to avoid defamation and libel in the first place. So if you tweet, blog, tag or post, here are five steps to keep you out of defamation danger:
Know what constitutes defamation.
Just as its name suggests, defamation is when you defame another person through harmful statements about another person that you know or should know are false. Slander, when such statements are spoken, and libel, when they are written, are forms of defamation.
For example, tweeting that your boss is a sexual harassment nightmare when no such claims have been verified would be considered libelous. But tweeting that you just won a judgment against your boss for sexual harassment, if true, is safe.
Stick to facts; avoid opinions that could be construed as facts.
Everyone is entitled to their opinions, but it's critical to distinguish between opinion and fact. If you believe a politician lied about their campaign finances, for example, but it's not been proven, it's best to precede any verbal or written statements about that belief with the words "in my opinion." It's better yet to keep potentially defamatory thoughts to yourself.
Even if you think the latest celebrity mistress is a home wrecker, name-calling can constitute character assassination. They may believe their paramour truly was separated at the time of the affair, in which case the home was already wrecked, and your statement is false.
Let readers reach their own conclusions.
It's likely that when faced with the same facts you encountered, many of your social media connections will view situations much the same way you do — without you exposing yourself to defamation claims.
Don't retweet or link to someone else's potential defamatory material.
Someone else may originate a rumor, but that doesn't stop it from being untrue. Regardless of where a defamatory statement originated, anyone who repeats it is just as liable as the initial source.
By Brian Weber, Johns, Flaherty & Collins' Holmen, Wisconsin, Office