Learn everything you need to know about online defamation claims, including the elements of defamation and the damages you can request from the court.
The proliferation of internet-enabled smart devices and the social media has created a seemingly free world where everyone can share their opinions about other people. Unfortunately, many marriages and careers have been ruined by online defamation. Even if you’ve not been a victim of online libel or slander, you should know the position of the law on the issue. But first, a primer on defamation.
What Is Defamation?
Defamation or defamation of character is a legal term for a published false statement that adversely affects a person’s reputation. It can be in the form of libel or slander. Libel is a false statement transmitted to a third-party, through a publication in a permanent medium such as a newspaper or website, which can harm or damage a person’s reputation.
Slander is a false statement transmitted through speaking or gesturing to a third-party, which ultimately affects another person’s reputation negatively.
Libel is considered a permanent defamation of character, while slander is seen as temporary. However, both forms of defamation can take place online and lead to legal action. Before you can sue for online defamation, the published statement that harmed your reputation must have the following elements:
Elements of Defamation
Regardless of the disparities in each state’s laws, a defamation suit must have these elements:
Before you can sue for online defamation, you must establish that the published statement is false. This is because a statement of fact is a complete defense to a defamation lawsuit, and the burden of proof falls on the complainant.
The defendant must present the defamatory statement as a fact; not as an opinion. But this does not always apply. The court can categorize an opinion as fact if a right-thinking person thinks it is a factual statement.
The defamatory statement is considered being published if the defendant shared it with a third party. In online defamation lawsuits, sharing, tweeting, or posting the injurious statement qualifies as publication. To prove this, you only need to screenshot the offensive content or print it out.
You must demonstrate that the defamatory statement damaged your reputation for the court to rule in your favor. It is easier to prove this if the wording of the statement is inherently harmful. For example, a person who was wrongfully accused of sexual misconduct or domestic violence.
In some cases, damages may not be so straightforward to prove. This often happens with malicious reviews of businesses on social media and review sites such as Yelp. The victim will likely need to provide evidence of reduced patronage or revenues because of the scandalous statement.
Who Are the Potential Defendants in an Online Defamation Lawsuit?
If a person defamed you online, you can file a claim against that individual or entity, not the platform they used to publish the information. You can also potentially sue any of the secondary authors of the derogatory information, including people who shared it.
But if the author or the information is anonymous and there is no other way to find their identity, the courts can allow you to sue the publisher or editor. Talk to your lawyer about filing a complaint in the relevant state court if you choose to pursue legal action.
Who Can Sue for Online Defamation?
Only the person or entity whose reputation was damaged can sue for online defamation. A third-party cannot sue on another’s behalf.
Damages for Online Defamation
When filing an online defamation case, you can claim damages for:
- Loss of reputation
- Mental anguish
- Loss of livelihood
You must prove to the court that the derogatory statement led to these losses. If your case is strong, the judge can award you monetary damages. The damages may be lower if the court decides you had a weak reputation already. In some cases, the court may only direct the defendant to retract the statement and tender an official apology.
What Other Complaints Can You File in Addition to Online Defamation?
If you have supporting evidence to back your claims of suffering from defamatory publications online, there are several other charges you can level against the defendant. These include a breach of confidence, harassment, malicious falsehood, and misuse of private information. Remember that the burden of proof rests on the complainant. So consider all your options by hiring an experienced attorney.