Harmless Gossip or Defamatory Falsehood?

Obsession with Clicks and Profit Leading to an Increase in Defamation by Social Media Influencers

As the popularity and prevalence of social media platforms continue to rise, it’s no surprise that instances of defamation amongst users are also increasing. Influencers and other social media users with high numbers of followers have a significant reach, and their content can reach thousands and even millions of people worldwide. Because of this, they need to consider what they choose to post carefully.

What is Defamation?

Social media influencers can be sued for defamation, but what exactly is defamation from a legal standpoint? Defamation is a false statement that causes harm to someone. Precise legal standards will vary from state to state, but the general basis for proving defamation includes the following:

  • The influencer published the statement or made it public online
  • The plaintiff was clearly identified as the subject of the falsehood
  • The false statement caused harm to the plaintiff
  • The influencer’s statement can be proven true or false and is not merely an opinion
  • The influencer is at least partially at fault for the publishing of the statement

These standards for proving defamation become more difficult to establish when applied in the context of the internet and, specifically, social media platforms. The nuances and complex nature of these systems can make determining defamation more challenging. Information spreads quickly online, and the lack of filters or fact-checking mechanisms means falsehoods can reach millions in a matter of minutes.

If a defamation lawsuit is filed, courts will likely consider where the misinformation originated. However, even if the influencer was merely repeating something they had heard elsewhere, they could still be found guilty of defamation.

Defamation Cases in the News

A defamation case connected to the extensively televised quadruple murders at the University of Idaho is currently still ongoing. A TikTok influencer used her platform to repeatedly accuse a history professor at the University of committing the murders. Even after receiving cease and desist letters and statements from the police stating the professor was not a suspect, the TikToker continued to make the accusations online. Understandably, the professor filed a defamation lawsuit.

Not all cases of social media influencer defamation are as dramatic as this first example; it is more often subtle and less sensationalized. Many influencers base their approach to posting content on defamatory statements in an effort to increase their views and engagement in the hopes of gaining followers, fame, and fortune.

As social media use is rampant across the globe, this is not a uniquely American issue. One landmark case in Canada was Pritchard v. Van Nes in 2016. Disagreements between two feuding neighbors led to one neighbor posting defamatory information in a Facebook post, implying that the other neighbor was potentially a pedophile. While an accusation like that is likely to have detrimental repercussions for anyone, the accused and defamed neighbor was an elementary school teacher. Thus, the consequences were even greater for him. He won his defamation suit and was awarded both general and punitive damages.

Another case outside the United States involves Tesla and a Chinese car influencer. Tesla China is suing a popular influencer over two videos that were posted online, apparently showing Tesla’s automatic brake system failing. The videos received a combined total of over 500,000 likes. Some viewers believed the videos to be unauthentic, and Tesla’s lawsuit suggests they also believe the two videos to be false and defamatory.

There are many other influencers who pose as consumer activists and, in order to increase their dreams of fame, attack the credibility of others.  They seem to rarely, if ever, interview those they attack and have a system of mixing fact with opinion to paint entertaining misrepresentations.  Often, they do this anonymously by intentionally hiding all traces of their identity.

The creator of the YouTube Channel Vulture Watch, thought to be Abisanka Bhattacharya of Portland Roads, Queensland, Australia, is one such example.   YouTube Channel Vulture Watch is a clear example of a common source of mistrust in modern media by getting some things right, and other things wrong in an effort to entertain through “education”, harming innocents in the process of misrepresentations.

It is unfortunate that relatively easy access to social media platforms and the millions of people who use them lead to misuse. Reputations can be ruined with one click. Defamation lawsuits seek to hold influencers accountable for the things they post because there are real people behind those usernames, and making defamatory statements about them can bring real consequences.