what is defamation law?

What’s in a Name? Defamation Law and Social Media Platforms

In a world where one’s presence is ubiquitous on social media platforms like Facebook, X, Instagram, TikTok, and other forums, one’s reputation can be defined by the wide-open parameters of individual identity in the online realm. Information that lingers in the online sphere can sometimes have overwhelmingly negative consequences. These forums have become the most common form of expression. But ease of use presents risks. People are less careful with their language and feel as if they are free to say whatever they want with impunity. A quick “post” or “send” allows people to communicate emotionally driven statements to thousands of people. Keep reading to understand defamation law and why practicing responsible online communication is paramount.

Good name in man and woman, dear my lord,

Is the immediate jewel of their souls.

Who steals my purse steals trash;

‘Tis something, nothing.

‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;

But he that filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him,

And makes me poor indeed.

William Shakespeare, Othello, act 3 sc. 3.

What is Defamation?

There are two types of defamation: libel and slander. Libel is written defamation, and slander is spoken defamation. Generally, it is easier to recover for libel than slander because a writing is capable of wider circulation. What are the elements of a claim in defamation law? Generally, defamation is a false statement harmful to someone’s reputation that purports to convey fact rather than opinion and is published to at least one third party. Defamatory statements can be made negligently or with malice.

online defamation

The Crucial Elements

Simply stating something true but embarrassing, or that hurts a person’s feelings is not defamatory. Publication means to communicate the statement to someone other than the person being defamed, even if it is just one other person. And in the online sphere, the original “publisher” can be held liable if others republish the original defamatory statement. There are two standards whereby fault is determined by defamation law:

  1. A private individual claiming defamation has only to show that the publisher acted negligently, which is to say that a reasonable person would not have published the statement.
  2. A public figure (for example, a politician or public official) must show that the statement was made with actual malice, which is to say that the person published the statement either with the knowledge that it was false or in reckless disregard for the truth.

In most instances, truth is an absolute defense against a defamation claim. Proof of falsity is the Plaintiff’s burden, but if the Defendant can show that the statement is an opinion rather than an assertion of fact, the Plaintiff cannot establish one essential element of a defamation claim.

Protecting Yourself Online

With some care, one can go a long way toward avoiding the dissemination of defamatory statements online. How? Slow down and think carefully about what you are writing; don’t post anything online when you are angry or otherwise emotional; keep in mind that what you are posting could be forwarded to people you never intended it to go to; know that electronic communication can be around a long time; don’t pass along negative information about a person that someone else gave you. Online communication via social media is informal, instant, and ubiquitous. But that means it is far easier to defame others and damage reputations over a wide geographic area in an instant.

Written by Charles S. North, Senior Attorney at KM&D Law