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Evil Four Leaf Clover (JOUR 4470)

The written word can be a powerful weapon.  Printed defamatory statements can sometimes cause more damage than a knife to the gut.  However, the explosion of social media over the past five years has opened an almost-uncontainable Pandora’s Box.  With hundreds of millions of messages posted every day, it’s easier than ever for libelous statements to go unnoticed.

A defamatory statement in a newspaper or magazine sticks out like a throbbing, sore thumb.  It’s easy to spot and save, making the plaintiff’s case much easier if he or she decides to take legal action.  In the realm of social media, tracking down a libelous allegation is like finding an evil four-leaf clover.  This is why there has been so few libel cases related to social media over the past few years.  And while the number of lawsuits has more than doubled from seven in 2009-2010 to sixteen in 2010-2011, a comment found at the bottom of this article makes a solid argument as to why this is hardly a cause for concern.

First – when the numbers are so small, it’s hard to draw any statistically significant conclusions.  Second – one has to compare the number of lawsuits per year to the number of social media messages posted per year.  Even using a conservative estimate of 200 million messages posted per day, which comes out to 730 billion messages per year, the number of lawsuits per message is astronomically small.  Third – given the increase in popularity of social media over the past year, it’s almost a certainty that the number of lawsuits per message in 2009-2010 is larger than the number of lawsuits per message in 2010-2011.

Another reason social media-based libel goes unpunished is because it’s much easier for the perpetrator to hide behind their personal computer than it would be if they worked for a national publication like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal.  I could easily send out a tweet claiming a certain celebrity who is known for having no discernable talent and an embarrassingly short marriage has been spreading her herpes all over the state of California.  Is it unethical?  Yes.  Would I get in trouble for it?  Probably not.  With a paltry 50 followers, my (hopefully) baseless claims would gain little-to-no traction.  It would be like trying to use a feather to create a splash in a pond.  However, if I were Pete Cashmore from Mashable and I said the same thing, it wouldn’t be a feather landing in the water; it would be a two-ton boulder.

The influence and reach of the message are two major factors when it comes to determining damage and injury in a libel case.  Printed publications like NYT or WSJ already have an assumed influence and reach, which is why defamatory statements hold a lot more weight when published in a newspaper or magazine.  But I would guess 97 percent of social media users’ reach and influence doesn’t extend past their family and friends.  And while it’s certainly true that sites like Twitter and Facebook enable news and gossip to spread at the speed of light, Internet trash-talk has become so commonplace now that most people decide to take matters into their own hands instead of taking the “attackers” to court.

Another reason for the low number of libel cases related to social media is the fact that the average citizen won’t be able to pony up the same kind of money a large organization like US Weekly or People can.  Internet service providers and social media site owners aren’t held responsible for the content users post on their sites, so after factoring in expensive court costs and lawyer fees, taking someone to court over a tweet or a status update hardly seems worth it.

The issue-du-jour a year ago was cyber bullying, which was the layman’s term used by media outlets for “libel.”  It made headline news across the country, but very few lawsuits actually made it to court.

The cacophonous ongoing conversation in social media makes picking out a single defamatory statement like finding a needle in a haystack.  It can be incredibly difficult to do, and in most cases barely worth the effort.  While words will always have the ability to damage, our increasingly short attention spans combined with the lightning-fast pace of the digital age we live in make most Twitter and Facebook posts little more than a blip on the radar.

There’s no doubt in my mind that statements published on the Internet should be held to the same standards as statements published in the press.  However, there’s also no doubt in my mind that people will continue to get away with libel through social media for years to come.

By the time you’ve reached the end of this blog post, at least a million more like it will have sprung up across the Internet.  And someone might have written the most awful thing about you on their Facebook page, their Twitter page or their blog.  And you wouldn’t even know it.


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