First off, let’s identify the difference between libel and slander. Slander is any statement that’s made, verbally, that defames another person’s character. For that reason, slander is not usually an issue on the Internet (unless the defamatory statement is contained in a video, which is a subject for another blog). Libel is written defamation, and you can bet that it does become an issue on the Internet.
If you make a false statement about a person, and then you publish it and cause that person harm to his or her reputation, or damage in some other way, you can be held liable. “Publishing” means simply that you have offered the information to another party. And yes, that means that if you slag someone in a blog, or in a Facebook post, and harm results to that person, you can be held legally liable.
So, what is the damage? It can mean harm to a person’s reputation, loss of money, loss of business, or harm to a person’s health.
Increasingly, we rely on the Internet for communication, and the Internet is worldwide. So now, libel can mean much more than simply writing a letter to the editor of a local paper. We know, also, that the Internet is forever – people who are Googling you might never go beyond the second or third page of results, and most don’t. The issue is that they CAN, and everything you say about another person on the Internet (if not deleted) is there for all time, available to anyone who is willing to dig deep enough.
If you make a defamatory statement about another person on Facebook, you can be identified. You can’t just say “Samantha is a ****” or “Bob beats his wife” and thinks that no one is going to know that you’re responsible. You can, of course, tweak your privacy settings so that only certain people see your posts, but you can’t change the fact that you DID post it, it IS out there, and YOU made the statement.
So, what does a person do when they’ve been libeled on the Internet? One course of action is to contact the person and demand that they remove the offending statement. Ideally, the offending party will simply apologize and remove the post. Then, it isn’t there forever. If the person who made the post refuses, there can be remedies under the law if the damage is documented and quantifiable.
So, bloggers and Facebookers, think before you post – you could be sued. And if you have been defamed on the Internet, you may have a cause for legal action.