The new age of social media has made it possible to communicate with a broader audience than ever before. Thanks to Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and many others, it is now possible for us to gather all of our professional and personal acquaintances into one place and communicate with them simultaneously.
But, as anyone who has ever spent time on a social media platform knows, for all its benefits, social media has also created a monster. Fake news and slander can spread very quickly, and when someone speaks out of turn or speaks ill of someone else, those statements can be spread far and wide. Here are three things to consider in weighing whether you have a claim for defamation based on someone’s comments on the internet.
1. Is the Post Clearly About You?
One of the first elements you’ll need to prove in establishing a claim for defamation, is that the speaker or writer was talking about you and made clear to his audience that he was talking about you. Vague statements about a group of people or even generally about certain types of behaviors will not typically satisfy this requirement.
Obviously, if the person uses your name or posts a picture of you in conjunction with a defamatory message, then this element is satisfied. Even without a name or picture, if there’s no way that a reader would mistake the message as being about anyone else, then this element will be satisfied. Furthermore, even if part of the audience doesn’t get that the message is about you and part of the audience does, that should still be enough to satisfy this requirement. The fact that some people wouldn’t have known this was about you while others did may affect the amount of damages you’re entitled to, but you’ll still have a valid claim under those circumstances.
2. Is it a Matter of Opinion?
The First Amendment to the United States Constitution broadly protects speech in the United States. Accordingly, courts are weary of punishing negative speech when it is clearly just a matter of opinion. If someone says that they don’t like your cooking, your politics or your religion, then it’s not defamation—it’s merely a matter of opinion. This doesn’t mean that someone can’t talk about religions, politics or some other disputed issue without making a defamatory statement. It simply means that it has to be more than a mere dispute over an opinion.
For a defamatory statement to be actionable at law, it must have been about a matter of fact which was known to be untrue by the person who posted it and made with malice. For example, courts have found that statements alleging someone had a sexually transmitted disease, that someone committed a crime or that someone was otherwise of questionable moral character, have all been found to be defamatory statements. So, before you go rushing off to file a lawsuit over a statement made online, ask yourself, “Was this a matter of opinion, or was this a malicious false statement?”
3. What Damages Have You Suffered?
The hardest part of any defamation claim is proving one’s financial damages. Even where a statement is false and made with malice and is clearly directed at you, the statement is only defamatory if you suffered damages of some kind. To put it differently, if someone posted a message online and only one hundred people read it and all hundred people commented back to the post and told them that was a terrible thing to say and that it was wrong, then there aren’t any damages. You haven’t been hurt by the statement that’s been made. Perhaps your feelings have been hurt and there’s been some sort of emotional toll on you, but the reality is that no one believed the false statement.
Of course, this isn’t how the world works and unfortunately, even people who should know better often believe malicious statements that are made on the internet. But you will still need to prove how you were damaged by people believing that statement.
It has probably affected your personal life and your emotional wellbeing, perhaps causing you loss of sleep or even requiring you to go see a psychiatrist. Have you lost your job? Have you missed out on a higher paying opportunity at work because a manager seems to have believed what they read about you on LinkedIn? Did you face disciplinary action at a school when a Dean was handed printed materials said about you online claiming that you did something that you didn’t?
All of these would be examples of how your damages might accrue. Of course, there are many other ways that you can prove damages, but the point is that you have to have some. How have you been damaged by the defamation in your case? This is an important factor in determining whether to go forward with a suit.
Call Cornerstone Law Firm Today
If you believe that you have been defamed by either slander or libel, you should call the Cornerstone Law Firm. Our attorneys have expertise in handling and defending against these types of claims, and we know the ins and outs of what you have to prove under Pennsylvania law in order to be successful.