It’s easy to feel invincible or untouchable on social media – no matter what you post or upload. Since social media platforms can feel like an open forum for discussion and free expression, it’s understandable to presume that our innocuous tweets, instagram stories, and facebook posts are immune to defamation claims. In actual fact, online defamation is a growing phenomenon – with many high-profile cases reaching the UK courts in recent years.
The specific danger of social media is the exponential reach – and therefore the elevated risk of widespread reputational damage. So even though it’s easy to thoughtlessly tap out a tweet or story that might portray a third-party in a negative light, it’s definitely safer to think before you post. This article offers a brief introduction to defamation and social media. We’ll walk you through the legality of defamation and some recent cases that involve the most popular social media platforms.
What is defamation?
Before we look at social media defamation, let’s start by defining defamation more generally. Defamation refers to the publication of a statement about an individual or entity that damages their reputation or causes the general public to think less of them.
There are two forms of defamation: libel and slander. Libel is a written defamatory statement, whilst slander is spoken.
A negative statement about a third party is not always defamatory. A statement is only defamatory if it can be proved that its publication did indeed have a detrimental impact on that person or entity’s reputation.
Defences against Defamation
There are a number of defences available to those accused of defamation, as outlined in the Defamation Act 2013. These include:
- Truth. Proving that the substance or essence of the statement made was true (the burden of proof lies with the defendant).
- Honest opinion. Establishing that the statement was the defendant’s honest opinion. The defendant must evidence the facts that led them to form this opinion and prove that any honest person would have come to the same conclusion based on those facts.
- Public interest. If the statement was made in the public interest or the defendant reasonably believed that its publication was in the public interest, then it is not defamatory.
- Privilege. Where the defamatory statement was made in the course of specific circumstances such as during judicial proceedings.
There are also defences specifically available to statements made in peer-reviewed scientific or academic journals and for operators of websites.
Remedies for Defamation
Removal of statement / Cessation of Distribution
The court has the power to order the removal of the statement from the website where it was published and/or the suspension of distribution of the defamatory statement in other materials.
Publication of summary of court’s judgement
The court can order for the defendant to publish a summary of its judgement. How this is worded, when, where, how and in what form the defendant has to publish this has to be agreed by both parties. If an agreement cannot be reached, the court will intervene.
The court may also award damages to compensate for the damage the claimant suffered.
Defamation & Social Media
Let’s take a closer look at defamation in the context of social media.
It is possible for both libelous and slanderous statements to be made on social media. Libelous statements can be made in written posts or captions. Slanderous statements can be made during livestreams or in videos.
There is no difference in the criteria that defines a defamatory statement on or offline. However, recent cases have seen courts emphasise the importance of considering defamatory statements made on social media within their specific context – especially with regards to how social media users might perceive and interpret these kinds of statements.
Online Defamation Cases
As outlined in the 2017 case Monroe vs Hopkins, the social media context is very specific. As such, it is essential to take into account that social media (in this case Twitter) is a ‘conversational medium’ and therefore it is imperative to take an ‘impressionistic approach’ that takes into account how quickly these kinds of posts are written and read.
In the Stocker vs Stocker case of 2019, Lord Kerr opens his judgment by asking what the statement made on Facebook by Ms Stocker: ‘He tried to strangle me’ would convey to the ‘ordinary reasonable reader of a Facebook post’. He goes on to add that the ‘fact that this was a Facebook post is critical’, citing the ‘social media user’ as a ‘new class of reader’.
The more high-profile recent libel case brought by Rebekah Vardy against Coleen Rooney, dubbed the ‘Wagatha Christie’ trial, is another example of an online defamation case.
Social media complicates and adds an entirely new dimension to defamation – not least because of the exponential reach it creates. Navigating the legality of defamation in a social media context requires an expert approach – which is why it’s always best to consult with a legal team that has substantial experience handling these kinds of matters.
What is cyber libel?
Cyber libel is another word for ‘online’ or ‘social media libel’. It refers to when a defamatory statement is written and posted on an online forum or platform.
Is online slander illegal UK?
In brief, yes. If a statement made online is found to be slanderous, the defendant could have to pay the claimant damages and remove the defamatory statement from their social media account.
Is libel hard to prove in the UK?
The burden of proof lies with the defendant in the UK. So the claimant simply has to prove that the statement in question was made by the defendant. This is usually relatively easy to establish.