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In most countries around the world, saying or writing something that’s untrue and harms the reputation of another person is a civil offense. While this has been the case for centuries, most people were essentially immune from prosecution — unless you had a public platform reaching a wide audience, meeting the bar for defamation was next to impossible.

Social media changed this.

Now anyone with a Facebook or Twitter account can theoretically reach the entire Internet using population. If the message being shared is positive, the Internet can do wonderful things DancingMan, And 4 More Times The Internet Was a Positive Force DancingMan, And 4 More Times The Internet Was a Positive Force The Internet can be a mean place, full of trolls and scamsters. But just like real life, for all the bad, there's a lot of good out there. Read More . If the message being shared is defamatory, there might be a very expensive lawsuit.

Tweeting Without Thinking

One particular case came to my attention when my colleague Angela wrote about social media fails That Awkward Moment When You… Complete Social Media Fail That Awkward Moment When You… Complete Social Media Fail That feeling when you've said something stupid on Twitter and realize you're going to get flamed. Well, be thankful that's as bad as it gets for most. And then there are the real screw-ups. Read More  – there was an incident in Melbourne, Australia.

An (ironically unnamed) woman took to social media to share a photo of a man she’d seen taking a picture near some children. On Facebook she labeled him a “creep” and claimed police were investigating. The post was shared 20,000 times, and the following day came to the attention of the man himself. He immediately turned himself in.

The slight catch was that he’d been taking a selfie of himself with a Star Wars poster – to send to his own children.


Obviously, according to a friend interviewed in the Daily Mail, the man and his family are extremely hurt by the incident. As is their right, they’re reportedly investigating their legal options.

A decade ago, the woman would have gone home and told her friends and family about the “creep” she’d seen in the shopping centre. While those statements could well be considered slanderous, only a few people would have heard them – it would never have amounted to much. Unfortunately for her, by posting them on social media she has potentially exposed herself to a libel suit. What she posted was untrue, publicly published, reached a significant audience and certainly had the potential to harm the man’s reputation.

The Cost of Bringing A Law Suit

Despite social media massively increasing the potential for law suits, the actual number of such libel cases brought is still very low. The UK experienced a 333% rise in social media libel cases between 2013 and 2014, but the number of cases only increased from six to 26.

One possible reason for this is that it’s very expensive to bring a libel suit. If you’re unsuccessful, depending on the ruling, you may have to pay both your own and the other party’s legal costs. In a long, drawn out case this can run into six or seven figure sums. For companies and celebrities, the costs can be worth the risk, but for regular people it’s often better to let things slide. Even when someone does bring legal proceedings, they are often settled for far smaller sums privately before the case reaches trial.


By and large this is what we’re seeing at the moment, although there are exceptions. In another incident from Australia, Andrew Farley was ordered to pay $AUS 105,000 to a music teacher he’d defamed on Twitter. Farley “bore a grudge” against Christine Mickle after she replaced his father, who stepped down for health reasons. Farley’s tweets implied Mickle was responsible for the situation.

For the most part, though, there have been cases involving politicians and their wives, sports stars, and two involving the singer Courtney Love.

The Case of Eoin McKeogh

It’s a truism in law that you should always go after the person with the most money. To that end a number of people have tried to sue the social networks themselves for hosting the defamatory content. They’ve met with little success.

An Irish student, Eoin McKeogh, brought one such case. A video of someone evading a taxi fare was posted on YouTube and McKeogh was falsely identified as the perpetrator. The video was shared widely online, so McKeogh took a case against Google, Facebook and a number of smaller websites in an effort to have the video removed. Three years later, the case is still ongoing and he is facing legal costs of over €1 million.

Even if McKeogh eventually wins, his case is unlikely to have been worth it.

What It All Means

The situation with social media and libel is extremely messy. While it’s difficult to make sweeping statements about something as complex as the global legal situation, in general the courts are struggling to keep apace with the development of the Internet. One thing that is clear, though, is that you can be held accountable for anything you post on a social network. “It’s just Twitter” is not going to work as a legal defense.

The social networks themselves don’t seem particularly fussed about the situation. As things stand, a website has to take down any defamatory content they are made aware of, but they do not actively have to police everything that is posted. This is, supposedly, one of the reasons for the report abuse button but, as my co-worker Jessica outlined they aren’t the most effective tools at the moment Tweeting While Female: Harassment, and How Twitter Can Fix It Tweeting While Female: Harassment, and How Twitter Can Fix It Twitter's abuse problem is real. Here are some examples, along with expert opinion on how Twitter can solve this. Read More . The current approach in the UK is that the report button is not enough, and a formal letter of complaint is required to force service providers to act.

Even with social media, it’s unlikely anything you post will be seen by enough people that someone will sue you for libel, but there is absolutely no reason to use that as an excuse to defame people online. Not only will you embarrass yourself How to Avoid Embarrassing Yourself on Social Media How to Avoid Embarrassing Yourself on Social Media Social media has the tendency to make us forget how public it is, so we end up sharing things we really shouldn't have. in this post I'm going to help you avoid those unnecessary embarrassments... Read More , but you’ll contribute to making the Internet a nastier place than it needs to be Worse Than Hitler: Why Do Flamewars Happen? Worse Than Hitler: Why Do Flamewars Happen? Why are flamewars so common on today's web, and is it really a new phenomenon?  Read More .

Social media can be an amazing force for good The Positive Impact Of Social Networking Sites On Society [Opinion] The Positive Impact Of Social Networking Sites On Society [Opinion] Social networking isn't for everyone, but it's now such a massive part of all our lives, whether we embrace or reject the notion, that it can no longer be ignored. But are social networking sites... Read More ; let’s think before we tweet and keep it that way.

We want to hear what you think. Have you ever been defamed online? Or even defamed someone? Let us know in the comments.

Image Credits: judge gavel via Shutterstock

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  1. Debra weaver
    November 8, 2016 at 6:00 pm

    My son got a protection order against him and the woman had him put in jail. hes 34 years old and never been in trouble until these orders. His ex wife went to get a protection order on him and she couldn't , cause he's never hit her or been mean to her.i told him she knows how to push your buttons well after all week of pissing him off and doing things that made him mad . He blesses her out in a text and used some threating words. He's never been in a fight before! The ex had to make up things in order to divorce him, so her family would support her. She has ruined his name. Well he get with this other girl named Amy(not her real name) Amy is big in church and is a teacher. But alot of people has told me she's crazy. They break up and she accused him of breaking in her house. And supposedly took a generator . He at first was doing work for her. And she gave him the generator as payment when they first started seeing each they break up after about 6months and she knows his wife had a protection order on him . He went and took her flowers at school and lunch and she has them to call police that he's bothering her. So Amy goes and gets a protection order on him. For about 3 months they have been talking to each other. Well she gets mad at him and has him put in jail. My son has never even been in a fight. He's never hit a woman!she did it cause his ex did it. I went and picked up my 5 year old granddaughter and on the way to take her to her dad's she said ; I'm mad my mommy and Kim has been talking bad about my daddy and wants him in trouble. My question is: Amy's sister put on Facebook his picture of being in jail and said some nasty things about him. She posted it about 6 or 7 times. Which the picture of people that get put in jail has a web site that yoy can look on.I'm the mother and she has went overboard with posting his picture and saying what she wants to about him . I told her she needed to erase it that he has a five year old and he has not be convicted yet. This has made me have a ulcer and breaking out in rashes and not being able to eat cause people is calling me telling me about the pictures and what she is saying about him. Can I sue her for anything. I really don't want money ..just to show her you can't do this to people. Please write back.

  2. My Name
    September 1, 2016 at 6:16 am

    I am the Plaintiff in a Small Claims Court case and just found out I won. Since the Judgement is Public Information, would posting that info on my Facebook page word for word from the Court's web site be considered Defamation of Character?

    • Harry Guinness
      September 1, 2016 at 6:41 am

      Hey, we're really not qualified to advise you on that! Ask a lawyer I suppose.

  3. Brad Merrill
    June 15, 2015 at 5:26 pm

    A couple of years ago, one of Mike Arrington's ex-girlfriends publicly accused him of rape and assault on Facebook, and people who didn't like him for one reason or another jumped up to defend her claims. It was front-page news in Silicon Valley — everyone was talking about it. It turned out that her allegations were false (she clearly had some serious issues in her own life), and Mike's attorney sent a letter demanding that she retract them — otherwise, a lawsuit would be filed. She did. But the harm was done: from now on, every time someone Googles Mike's name, they're going to see those headlines.

    That's an extreme example, but it shows just how dangerous libel can be to one's reputation. Don't just think about whether you'll get sued — think about the harm you're causing by making false claims online.