Unfortunately, more and more people are experiencing online defamation, which involves unscrupulous individuals—often Internet trolls, business competitors, ex-employees, or former romantic partners—intentionally trying to ruin someone’s online reputation by posting negative content about a person or company.
Consider the story of Lisa-Michelle Kucharz, a professor and anti-cyberbullying advocate. For two years, a total stranger—who was interested in a man Ms. Kucharz had previously had an intimate relationship with—used the Internet to accuse her of being a pedophile, having an affair, sleeping around, engaging in sex for money, and having mental health challenges. The defamer also contacted Ms. Kucharz’s employer via Facebook, wrote blogs, and shared hundreds of posts on social media.
This negative content, some of which is still visible in Ms. Kucharz’s search results, had a powerful effect on many aspects of her life. Not only did it hurt her emotionally and professionally, but it also cost her “tens of thousands of dollars in fees for private investigators, cyber investigators, and attorneys.”
So what should you do if you’re facing an online defamation threat? Below, we’ll go over your options and give you pointers on how best to proceed.
What is online defamation?
Defamation of character—usually shortened to just “defamation”—is the catch-all legal term for any false statement someone makes that harms another person’s reputation. In Common Law jurisdictions (like the US, Canada, and the UK), defamation is a civil matter, not a criminal one. This means that you sue the offending individual for damages, rather than put him or her in jail.
There are two kinds of defamation: libel—for written or fixed statements—and slander—for spoken statements. However, this article will focus solely on libel because the Internet is considered a fixed medium, and as such, most online content—even videos—falls into the libel category.
While defamation laws vary from state to state, the threshold for determining if a statement is defamation is generally the same. For a statement to qualify as defamation, it must be:
- Published: This just means that the statement was made public, not that it was printed in a book. Anything shared on the Internet is considered “published.”
- False: If a statement isn’t false, it can’t logically hurt your reputation. Consequently, opinions like “That was the worst hamburger I’ve ever eaten!” usually don’t count as defamation because it’s impossible to prove these statements are false. After all, how can anyone know or judge the quality of all the hamburgers someone else has consumed? However, if somebody stated, “Don’t go to this business: They stole $500 from me!” and you can prove you’ve never done business with that person, then that would be defamation. It was a lie they knew to be false, spread with the intent to damage your reputation.
- Injurious: The point of defamation law is to compensate people for injuries to their reputations. Therefore, you need to show how a false statement has damaged your reputation. For example, it cost you your job, hurt your business, or ruined your relationships. Because of this, people who had bad reputations to start with usually don’t get much benefit from a defamation lawsuit.
- Unprivileged: In certain situations, people are immune (privileged) from being sued for defamation. For example, when a person is testifying in court or when someone is trying to warn others about something dangerous.
Should you file a lawsuit?
When it comes to online defamation, most people’s first thought is “should I hire a lawyer?” The answer is “it depends on your situation.”
Filing a defamation suit can be a smart strategy in certain situations. Even then, however, it’s rarely enough on its own. You may win legal respite, but that won’t necessarily stop the defamatory information from spreading across the Internet.
When deciding whether to take the legal route, you need to consider a number of factors, including the strength of your reputation prior to the attack (a well-established online image can serve as a buffer against defamatory attacks) and how much time and money you have available to devote to the case.
The most important thing to know is that filing a lawsuit can trigger the Streisand effect, which is when an attempt to cover up sensitive information ends up amplifying it instead, especially if the information in question is scandalous or otherwise gossip worthy. A reporter coined this term in 2005, after Barbara Streisand went to court to make a photographer remove a photo of her home from his website. Before Streisand filed the lawsuit, the photo had only been downloaded a handful of times. As a result of the publicity surrounding the case, the image gained nearly half a million views.
The same thing can happen when you file a defamation lawsuit. Because of the salacious nature of defamatory remarks, news about these kinds of cases tends to spread quickly. This means that even more people will see the negative remarks you are trying to remove. Thus, by trying to force someone to remove a defamatory remark, you might end up making the situation worse and causing more damage to your reputation.
Another thing to consider before deciding to hire a lawyer is that lawsuits can be lengthy and expensive, even if you have a slam-dunk case. This is because it can be difficult to identify the person defaming you, as the famous Liskula Cohen case demonstrated. And it can be even harder to prove that someone has engaged in defamation.
Unfortunately, if you can’t identify your defamer, you can’t legally make the websites where your defamer posted the defamatory remarks remove the offensive statements. This is because these sites are not liable for the content people post on them, according to Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, which states “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider.”
Non-legal options for dealing with defamation
Whether or not you take legal action, you’ll also have to make a decision as to which non-legal actions will be necessary to decrease the online visibility of the defamation. Below is an overview of your options.
Ignoring online defamation means not publicly responding to it. This helps you avoid drawing more attention to the negative statement.
This is a good approach to use when you are dealing with an instance of low-level defamation that doesn’t have the power to significantly damage your ability to make a living. For example: a disgruntled customer who writes a one-off review claiming “These guys kicked me out of the store!”
In cases like this, ignoring the defamation works because the defamer comes across as a troublemaker and an unreliable source of information. Most readers of online reviews can figure out which ones are written by someone with an axe to grind. And if your business has many positive reviews to offset the few bad ones, the majority of readers will disregard the outliers.
Respond to it
Responding to online defamation means publicly replying to your defamer on the same platform where the defamatory content exists. The strategy here is to defend your good name and prevent the further spread of false information.
This is the approach to choose when you are dealing with statements that can seriously damage your career or your business, such as of accusations of criminality.
In these situations, failing to respond could be interpreted as an admission of guilt. As such, it’s best to reply swiftly and politely, no matter how hostile and rude your defamer is. By maintaining a professional demeanor, you’ll demonstrate to everyone viewing the defamatory statement that you have nothing to hide, and you’ll force those reading to wonder who, precisely, is more believable.
Try to get it deleted
This approach involves asking the site owner, webmaster, editor, or some other person with decision-making authority at the website hosting the defamatory content to remove it from the website.
You should use this tactic if you have experienced significant, documented reputational damage from someone’s false online remarks but you didn’t win a defamation lawsuit and thus don’t have a court order requiring the websites hosting the negative statements to remove them.
This option is effective because websites will often remove content that violates their Terms of Service. Facebook, for example states in its Community Standards that it is “… committed to removing content that encourages real-world harm, including (but not limited to) physical, financial, and emotional injury.”
Has the defamation you are experiencing cost you your job? Made it difficult to find employment? Hurt your company’s sales? If you can prove that a user’s content has hurt you financially, there’s a good chance that Facebook will take down the defamatory statement.
For more information about deleting negative content, see our article, How to remove an article from the Internet.
The suppression process (known as online reputation management) involves several steps:
- Analyzing your online reputation to better understand your unique reputational situation and developing an effective suppression strategy.
- Creating quality content (like a blog) designed to rank highly for your name.
- Strategically publishing this new content to specific websites on a schedule that tells Google the content is valuable.
- Using search-engine-optimization (SEO) techniques to promote your existing positive content and get it to move up in Google’s rankings.
You should use online reputation management strategies alongside any other steps you take to limit or repair the damage caused by online defamation.
Ensuring that the negative content doesn’t show up in the top search results for your name is the best way to mitigate the damage of online defamation. This is because most people who google you won’t scroll past the first or second page of results.
What makes online reputation management so effective is that it leverages Google’s search algorithm to deliver the type of content that users are looking for (also called user intent). So, instead of being presented with untrue, outdated, and irrelevant information about you, searchers can find the accurate, timely, and relevant information that reveals your true self.
And because this new content satisfies the user’s intent, these links get more clicks. This tells Google to rank these sites higher in the search results, which pushes negative content farther down (and eventually off) the page.
You can read more about suppressing libelous statements here:
- How to defend yourself with online libel management
- What is online reputation management
- The definitive guide to online reputation management
- How to protect your online reputation
Online defamation hurts more than just your feelings; it can also leave a tarnished reputation for potential employers, friends, and family to find for years to come. Whether you decide to hire a lawyer, delete the content, ignore it, respond to it, or suppress it, it’s important to learn all you can about repelling these kinds of attacks.
For more information about the best ways to defend your good name, please give us a call. We are more than happy to provide a free consultation.