Libel online: Signs you need an attorney

8 minute read

Libel online: Signs you need an attorney

Online reputations matter - especially if you are in business. But what can we do if our online reputation is under attack? Here we look into the issue of libel and libel online, plus what you can do if you are a target.

It is a well-known fact that one of the easiest ways to destroy the reputation of a business is to defame its name online. Unfortunately, any one of us could find ourselves in this situation at any time.

On Twitter, a disgruntled customer may vent about a bad experience they had with your company. Their tweets are retweeted, the event cascades, and you are left to watch helplessly as your negative ratings rise on social media and in search results. 

These crises are becoming more common and although they may seem unavoidable, their impact on your reputation can be significantly lowered if you have a crisis management plan in place. This article will provide a brief overview of the types of libel online, as well as what to do if your reputation is at stake.

Article sections

What is libel?

Every day on the internet and social media, individuals are slandered, libeled, or defamed. It happens to famous actors and prominent business people, but it also happens to everyday people, including ordinary professionals (i.e. doctors, lawyers) and entrepreneurs. The internet offers a unique opportunity for defamatory statements to be made which can be read by millions of people worldwide in mere seconds.

Defamation generally consists of a false statement of fact that harms someone's reputation. If you made a defamatory statement about someone else that you knew was false, then you can be held liable in a court for damages.

Essentially, there are two main types of defamation:

  • Slander: Verbal defamation
  • Libel: Written defamation

defamation

When a defamatory statement is made through social media, such as via LinkedIn or Facebook, or otherwise online, it involves the written (as in posted) word, and therefore is considered libel.

What is Twibel?

In recent years, a sub-category of libel has emerged and is known as ‘Twibel.’ This form of libel isn’t strictly limited to Twitter-based defamation as you may assume, however. It relates to any form of written libel that occurs on the internet, although the term hasn’t yet been made a legal term.

Disgruntled employees and Twitter

In many cases, disgruntled employees are perpetrators for slandering a business. This is why having proper, up to date HR policies in place is imperative. After all, the last thing any business owner wants is to end up with an employment dispute, libel online and a claim for discrimination or unfair dismissal.

Having a good employment contract in place is an important first step to avoid disputes and helping employees know where they stand about important issues. This should be accompanied by a company handbook which lays out key policies and procedures, which can include online libel and its consequences. 

What to do if you are a target of Twibel

If you discover that someone has posted defamatory material about you on the internet and you know - or at least strongly suspect - who the culprit is, you have several options.

Author removal request

Firstly, you can contact the person in question and demand that they remove the false statement(s) voluntarily. As is most often the case, you may not get a response. Depending on the character you are dealing with, it may even lead to further defamatory posts being written about you, or even a copy of your direct correspondence itself being made public and ridiculed. 

In today’s technology-driven world, it is imperative to be cautious regarding anything you say or do on the internet, both publicly and privately. Anything you put out into the online world can be used against you in a way you never predicted or intended. A phone call is almost always a better option than sending a letter or email. 

ISP removal request

Your second option, regardless of whether you know the perpetrator or not, is to make contact with the internet service provider (ISP) or website/web host directly and request that the content/statements be removed. Of course, if you do not know who the original author is, then this becomes your first step.

It is best to review the relevant website’s terms and conditions to ensure that you adhere to its preferred procedure and that you are sending your request to the appropriate authority. It also helps if you can cite that you are referring to a specific violation as outlined by their terms. Depending upon the website/service and its terms, this may result in the redaction or removal of the offending material.

Alternatively, they may refuse to take down the content without a court order, in which case, you need to decide whether to proceed with legal action.

Deciding whether to sue

Once you have exhausted all other avenues, instigating legal action may be your only other option. The hosting website or ISP may not be willing to divulge the identity of the offending author without being issued court orders to do so, which will make your task more challenging. 

Your chance of succeeding in obtaining a subpoena, identifying the culprit and having the content removed will depend upon several factors. These include:

  • The jurisdiction that you are filing the lawsuit within
  • The content and context of the statement(s) in question
  • Your status as either a public figure or private individual

Depending upon the court you are filing in, the judge may make a determination as to whether you have a valid case prior to the court even considering issuing a subpoena.

An important factor to consider before filing a lawsuit is your ability to adequately prove your damages. In complex litigation, this often seems like a daunting task. Successfully establishing reputational damage for a defamation case usually requires considerable evidence.

Depending on the laws outlined within your case’s jurisdiction, if defamation itself can be proven and established, including injurious statements regarding another’s business or profession, damages are usually presumed.

Is my case valid?

The validity of any libel case is dependent upon several factors. Libel, slander, and defamation can often be causes of action for a personal injury lawsuit. Damages as a result of defamation can be awarded for tangibles like the loss of a job, money to cover therapy sessions, or intangibles like emotional pain and suffering.

But, in addition to the aforementioned considerations, before commencing legal proceedings, you should assess whether your case may be challenged as being a Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation (SLAPP). 

A SLAPP is deemed as essentially a meritless lawsuit which has been filed against an individual in retaliation for voicing their opinions regarding an issue of public concern, such as cases that involve large companies, government officials or celebrities. SLAPPs are most often filed by plaintiffs with deep pockets in order to silence an individual’s freedom of speech and force them to incur hefty legal fees to defend their position.

Many states have passed anti-SLAPP legislation, and in these jurisdictions a defendant may ‘SLAPPback.’ For example, by filing a motion to strike the complaint or to file their own counter lawsuit to seek damages for attorney’s fees and malicious prosecution. 

Providing your lawyer does not implicate your case as being of public concern. There is little risk of a SLAPPback occurring or being upheld.

Does content have to be defamatory to have it removed?

Not necessarily, no. If negative material about you or your business is posted, yet it is not strictly defamatory or infringing, it is still possible to have it removed from the internet.

Here are some key questions to assess your case:

  • Has your business or income been directly affected by the negative online content?
  • Have you lost customers or received negative inquiries that directly stem from the content?
  • Has there actually been any provable harm caused to your business?

With this proof, you may be successful in requesting that the website/ISP remove or redact the harmful content, particularly if it in any way violates their terms of use.

Again, depending on the laws in place within your jurisdiction, there may be the potential to claim for damages relating to intentional interference with prospective business leads and relations. It is advisable to consult with an attorney to assess your case’s merits.

You could also bury it

If all else fails and/or it is determined that your case does not warrant legal action, or that legal action would be too expensive, there are ways to at least bury the negative content.

Most people searching on the internet only look at the latest results and don’t click past the first page of search results. If you load the internet with positive content and reviews etc., then you can essentially bury the negative words and have them cause you little-to-no problems in the future.

The key to content suppression is to identify, analyze, and promote the right content that will effectively bury your negative content. 

You can also consider employing the expertise of services like our Reputation Management Packages that specialize in bolstering online reputations.

Final thoughts

Once you have attempted reasonable communications directly, then it is advisable to consult with an attorney to establish the merits of your case and decide whether to proceed with legal action. Online presence is powerful and it pays to do a thorough online search of any content that refers to your name and/or company name regularly to ensure that you remain on-top of protecting your digital reputation.

 

Online libel FAQs

What is defamation? 

Defamation generally consists of a false statement of fact that harms someone's reputation. There are two main types of defamation. Slander, or verbal defamation, and libel, or written defamation.

Can you sue for libel on social media?

In short, yes. When a defamatory statement is made through social media, such as via LinkedIn or Facebook, or otherwise online, it involves the written, as in posted, word, and therefore is considered libel.

How can I remove damaging negative content online?

If you are dealing with negative online content, you can request the author or publisher remove it. If they refuse, you can attempt to suppress it by promoting positive content to outrank the negative.