With the advent of the internet and its accessible nature, many previously harmless and transitory events became a lot more problematic. Something as insignificant as an innocent joke or an inappropriate remark can remain online forever, only to be discovered much later and wrongly interpreted without context.
We constantly hear on the news about the newest scandal involving some celebrity and something they said or wrote years ago, only for it to come back and destroy their careers later down the line.
The permanent nature of the internet and the fact that regulation of what people post is almost impossible to maintain can lead to many dangerous situations. And when these slanderous accusations cause damage to an injured party, they can be classified as Online Defamation.
What is Considered Defamation
For a document to be classified as defamation, it has to be published, harmful to someone targeted by the article and most importantly, false. Verbal offense concerning false statements is called slander, but when it’s published online it’s considered a libel, and the injured person or company can opt to sue its author.
Online defamation is usually posted with harmful intent, intentionally trying to damage someone’s reputation or career. Hardly a day goes by without a new case of wrongful accusations appearing online, causing chaos across social networks. It can be destructive to both individuals and companies or smaller businesses.
A big problem with defamation is that it’s very easy for someone to leave a harmful comment or write a blog post, but it’s much harder to take it down. This is what makes defamation somewhat intimidating. It can even be used as blackmail because once your reputation is tarnished online, it will be there for all to see, and it can be problematic to take down.
The first place where people encounter slanderous material is in through the search engines. However, search engines are not responsible for this material. Therefore, the first step in eliminating unwanted content is dealing directly with the source.
How to Deal with Online Defamation
Get Rid of It
First, try contacting them directly. Start with an email, explaining your problems with the article in question.
The tone of the letter should be friendly but firm. Explain that the author of the defamatory content has made a mistake in their statement. Provide them with correct information and explain that the continued publication of the inaccurate comments will hurt you financially.
If this fails, you can try to report them to their hosting company. You might be in luck if their website doesn’t comply with the host’s terms and conditions. This isn’t guaranteed to work because the Communication Decency Act considers hosting sites as intermediaries of free speech, so they aren’t obligated to remove any defamatory content.
If the comment was posted on social media websites like Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram, you can report the user directly. Reporting the user to Google is another option if they are violating Google’s SEO rules. Websites that misuse Google’s AdSense policy can get banned and have their ad profit taken away.
The only downside to removing the statement is that the user may decide to repost the same statement on a different website.
If you can’t remove an incriminating statement, then you can resort to making a rebuttal. Your response should be brief and concise. Avoid bickering with other users, as this will tarnish your reputation even more.
Sometimes, rebuttals can actually make the situation worse. It can make it seem like there is some credibility to the original statement, which can trigger more criticism and attention directed towards you. You have to weigh the pros on cons of getting personally involved in the matter.
Take Legal Action
This can be a tough decision as it hinges on many different aspects. The question of whether or not take things to court is a balance of risk and reward.
The first thing is to consider if your online reputation is really at stake, regardless of your personal feelings on the matter. The emotional aspect is pretty important, but taking legal action can be a long, cumbersome and expensive process, so this decision should be an objective one and used the last resort.
Besides, even if you win the legal case, slanderous material can still spread uncontrollably over the internet. If the case gets too big, it can also cause the Streisand effect, and you end up bringing further attention to the matter.
However, if you do decide to take legal measures, be sure to keep records of all the defaming statements made towards you. Take screenshots of the posts, comments, search engine results, or other incriminating documents and print them out. You should also hold onto any evidence that indicates the user’s identity.
Winning Isn’t Everything
Perhaps the best-known case of defamation was that of McDonald’s against Morris and Steel in the United Kingdom. This trial, considered the longest in the Saxon country, began when McDonald’s denounced Morris and Steel, two environmental activists not linked to any association, for the dissemination of a pamphlet in which McDonald’s personified all the evils caused by the society of First world consumption. The destruction of nature, exploitation of children in advertising, torture, and murder of animals, complicity with hunger in the third world, sale of unhealthy and addictive junk food and so on.
McDonald’s won the legal battle but lost the public trial. The confrontation referred to as the McLibel Case, positioned the media and society on the side of Morris and Steel, for believing that the dispute was manifestly unequally between the parties, and equating it with David’s struggle against Goliath. McDonald’s has possibly regretted not letting the issue run its course, due to the lingering bad press that the trial generated.
Therefore, before taking legal action in a defamation case, you should look at the bigger picture and try to reach an agreement outside the courts. Resort to a lawsuit only as the last option, since even winning a case can irreparably ruin your public image.