I frequently receive calls or emails from people asking for help with online defamation, usually on Facebook. The people who contact me are often at their wits’ end and want to sue the people defaming them, thinking that will fix the problem. Unfortunately, that can often make it worse. The challenge with online defamation is that the usual legal approach can aggravate the harm being suffered and the better course of action doesn’t necessarily fix anything. Dealing with online defamation is often a matter of damage control and this is primarily due to the social Web’s nature.
Social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google+ empower their users to express themselves on a scale typically not seen before the Web became social. This has shifted power dynamics in profound ways. We recently saw how Facebook and Twitter played important roles in the Arab Spring in Egypt and other countries in the Middle East. It is important that the social Web remain as free and accessible as possible because a free social Web is a powerful tool for freedom generally. At the same time, the social Web, like most tools, has darker applications and defamation online is one of those applications.
Of course, that is an oversimplification. A form of expression can be defamatory and be justifiable and permissible if, on its face, it harms its target’s reputation and yet its publication serves a legitimate purpose. When people contact me about defamation online (the term they often use is “slander”), the published material is often not justifiable and is motivated by malice.