Reasonable Doubt: When online defamation goes viral

When the mob turns on you on social media: Kevin Yee gives his insight on a lawsuit involving Facebook bullying and a reputation left in ruins.

Plenty of us turn to social media to vent. It’s easy to do and you get immediate positive feedback. Within minutes, friends give words of encouragement, “likes”, “shares”, or “follows”.

But social media can turn ugly fast. Any online post can become viral and out of any one person’s control. This is where social media runs headfirst into defamation law.

The B.C. Supreme Court recently decided a case of defamation on Facebook. One party was, by all accounts, a popular teacher who brought the school’s music program to life. Think of this lawsuit as the Teacher versus the Neighbour.

The feud started when the Neighbour built a loud waterfall in her backyard pond. The Neighbour’s dog also had a habit of running into the Teacher’s yard to do its business. To support a formal complaint about the dog, the Teacher began taking pictures on his phone whenever this would happen. This is when the Neighbour ratcheted things up by turning to Facebook.

On her Facebook wall, the Neighbour made a post about the Teacher. In the post, the Neighbour suggested that the Teacher was videotaping her children. The insinuation was there: the Neighbour was suggesting the Teacher was a pedophile. The accusations were completely untrue. The court repeatedly made this clear.

It’s not known how many people saw the baseless and harmful comments. The Neighbour had more than 2,000 Facebook friends. In less than 24 hours, 37 individuals had added their own comments to the post. They rallied around the Neighbour. Labels of “creeper”, “scumbag”, and “pedo” were thrown around.

Reading some of the comments excerpted in the judge’s ruling is like witnessing a mob coming to form. One friend announced that he would notify the principal of the school where the Teacher worked. Within hours, that friend e-mailed the principal and asked him what he would do about the Teacher. Back on Facebook, meanwhile, the Neighbour offered her own outrage in response to everyone else’s comments.

The Teacher learned about this attack the next day through a parent at school. He went to a police station to file a complaint. That evening, a police officer attended his home to take down a statement. By then, 27.5 hours after the original post had gone up on Facebook, the Neighbour had deleted it from her wall. But the damage was done. The post had gone viral. It had been shared and relayed to other Facebook pages.

At trial, the Teacher testified about the emotional devastation. He felt he lost the trust of his students and their parents. He was self-conscious around his students for fear of more baseless accusations. He dreaded school performances and cut back on extracurricular activities. He lost his love of teaching.

In her defence, the Neighbour explained that she was just venting online. She said she should not be responsible for the actions of others.

What did the court find? The court concluded that the Neighbour was liable under defamation laws. First, the Neighbour was liable for her Facebook post that started it all. Second, the Neighbour was liable for the comments made by her Facebook friends. Third, the Neighbour was even liable for the friend who e-mailed the principal.

To reach these conclusions, the court considered how we use Facebook as public forums for conversations that can spread in cyberspace. The court also looked at the time stamps of the Neighbour’s numerous comments to infer that the Neighbour was well aware of just what the others were saying about the Teacher. The court was influenced by the severity of the accusations themselves and the recklessness of letting the online discussion continue for as long as it did.

The court lamented how the Teacher’s reputation was seriously damaged. It explicitly stated that it hoped its published decision would help repair this damage. For damages of defamation, the court awarded the teacher $50,000 for general damages. The court awarded an extra $15,000 for punitive damages to make the point that such recklessness has no place in social media.

People rely on social media, but its extraordinary power as a communication platform gives rise to legal consequences. Serious harm can be done. This case shows how much damage recklessness and stupidity can cause. You may have simply started the conversation, but you may be held liable for the contributions of others.

A word of caution: you should not act or rely on the information provided in this column. It is not legal advice. To ensure your interests are protected, retain or formally seek advice from a lawyer.

The author’s opinions of the case are based on the court’s published reasons and not on any personal knowledge of the lawsuit or its parties.