The use of social media for communication has exploded in recent years. Much of what people post on sites such as Facebook, Twitter, and other sites is negative and even mean-spirited, and sometimes it damages the reputation of others.
Posting something negative or mean-spirited is not in itself illegal or subject to a lawsuit. However, the question of whether you can be sued for negative comments you post on social media depends on whether your words constitute defamation.
- A published falsehood that damages a person's character can be libel.
- A published opinion is not libel.
- If the target is a public figure, the post must be proven to be both false and malicious, or deliberate.
If you are concerned about being the target of a lawsuit, defamation can be protected against with an umbrella policy on your assets.
Defamation involves writing or saying something about someone that damages that person’s reputation. Radio and television personalities often guard against lawsuits with what is literally known as broadcaster's insurance.
To be defamatory, a statement must be presented as true but, in fact, be untrue. It also must not be subject to immunity as it might be, for example, in the case of a public figure (more on this below) and under some other circumstances.
Defamation involving posts that appear on social media is considered libel since the statement is published, or posted, often with the victim's name attached.
The Two Forms of Defense
The best defense against a defamation lawsuit based on comments you make online is that what you have posted is true. If your statement is verifiably true, you are off the hook.
Proving truth, however, can be time-consuming and expensive.
Or, if you can prove that your posted comments are merely your opinion and not a purported statement of fact, that is sufficient to get a defamation lawsuit dismissed and avoid civil damages.
Opinion, like truth, is not always easy to prove. Saying “I think” or “It is my opinion that …” is not sufficient to prove a statement is an opinion. If, for example, your online post says, “I think my neighbor killed his wife,” the wording suggests it's an opinion. But the fact that you know your neighbor and that readers may conclude that you have knowledge about the situation transforms that statement into one of potentially verifiable fact.
The Statement of Verifiable Fact Test
Separating your opinion from a statement of verifiable fact is key to defending yourself against defamation.
Context becomes important.
A private individual who has been defamed online can collect civil damages.
If you post a comment saying, “That guy is a loser,” you have made a statement that is not verifiable one way or the other. It is simply your opinion that the object of your comment is someone of low achievement.
However, if you post, “That man has never held a job,” you’d better know he has never been employed, or you may find yourself on the receiving end of a defamation lawsuit.
Concerning Public Figures
Public figures cannot sue you for posting negative comments about them unless they can prove “actual malice,” which is defined as knowingly making statements that are false or acting with reckless disregard for the truth or falsity of your statements.
Public figures only have to meet the “actual malice” condition if the defamation relates to the specific cause or activity in which they are engaged.
There are two types of public figures: There are people with power and influence, such as the president of the U.S., members of Congress, professional athletes, movie stars, and others whose names are well-known. They are considered all-purpose public figures.
The second type of public figure is known as a limited-purpose public figure. This includes the kind of person who is normally a private individual but voluntarily engages in certain causes or activities that bring them to public attention. A parent who starts an anti-bullying campaign in her community might fall into this category, as could a professor who is quoted as an expert in a news story.