Social Media Causes Rise in Defamation Cases

Blogs and Twitter aren’t good for everyone; a new study suggests that social media is causing a rise in defamation cases.

Legal information firm Sweet and Maxwell released a new report that suggests that social media is causing a significant increase in Internet-related libel cases in England and Wales. According to the study, the number of defamation cases jumped from 7 to 16 in the year to May 31, 2011.

The research suggests that some of the cases have been settled, and that none of the cases involve “established” media companies.

The research also found that there has been a drop in defamation cases where celebrities are involved. In 2009/20100, there were 22 defamation cases involving a celebrity, and in 2010/2011, there was only nine, making for a 59% decrease.

According to Korrieh Duodo, co-author of Defamation: Law, Procedure, and Practices and barrister of law with Addleshaw Goddard this may be due to more injunctions which prevent media from using certain information: “The increased use of anonymity orders in privacy claims has enabled well-known individuals to prevent anything being published at all. This will in some cases prevent the need for the individual to sue for libel after the event.”

Further, the study revealed that more and more companies and small businesses are suing in order to protect their reputation. In 2009/10, five businesses launched such a suit; whereas, in 2010/11,  only16 companies launched such a suit.

Finally, there was a minor increase in the overall number of defamation cases in England and Wales last year, rising 4% from 83- 86.

In an article published by The Guardian, Duodu, noted that: “Social media tools have over a billion users worldwide and are growing rapidly in popularity. Nevertheless, they can present a huge problem for individuals and corporates trying to protect their reputations from harmful user-generated content. There is certainly a need for greater accountability of the providers of user-generated content; a need to tighten the regulatory framework within which they operate.”

He also noted that one of the reasons more companies may be turn to the legal system for help is that it can be difficult to get information offline. “People who find themselves damaged on social media sites can often find it time-consuming and difficult to have the offending material removed, because many platform providers do not accept responsibility for their users’ content.”

It’s true, they don’t. Not only that, information on social media is a like the flu: it travels fast. The speed at which information travels means that what used to take days, now takes hours and  information can spread before a company even knows about it.  The take home message for companies is that while legal recourse is an option, proactive rather than reactive measures are necessary in order to have a degree over one’s online reputation.

For reporters, users, and commentors, it is important to remember the basics: check your facts and be sure they are from reputable sources. How many celeb death hoaxes have we witnesses this year? Dozens. If you are surfing through information, this can be frustrating, but if you are distributing information it can be defamation. In short, think before you tweet.

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