The bearable lightness of cyber defamation

A newspaper publishes an article about someone, and that person feels that the contents of the article are defamatory. The law provides that this person can sue the newspaper for defamation and, if found guilty, the newspaper’s editors will have to retract the false statements and compensate the person for the harm done. The legal avenue for dealing with this kind of situation entails two implicit assumptions. The first is that when someone makes a false statement about another person which causes that person serious harm, the victim can identify either the person who made the statement or another person who is responsible for the statement having been made. (For example, the aggrieved party may sue the newspaper rather than the author of the article.)  The second assumption is that one or more of the persons who have been identified as being responsible have enough assets so that, in economic terms, it is worth suing them.

Up until a few decades ago, both assumptions were generally valid. A journalist who wrote a defamatory article might not have enough funds to make it worthwhile for the aggrieved party to sue him or her, but the newspaper that published the article certainly did – and could reasonably be held responsible for what it had printed. This is no longer true. Now, people can go onto the Internet without identifying themselves and, with just a little technical know-how, can go online using intermediaries that mask their identity, rendering their messages anonymous. In addition, once online, people can communicate with a very large number of other people at a cost of next to nothing. And since Internet access is so cheap, if people decide not to be anonymous but instead to slander other persons openly, there is a good chance that the slanderers will not have enough assets to make it worthwhile to sue them.

Procedures could be set up under which an Internet provider could be obliged to remove defamatory material. But this will not work for defamatory posts on Usenet, in mass e-mailings or on websites that dodge the law; nor will it work in cases where people are willing to take the trouble to have their webpages hosted on a number of different servers so that they can switch from one to another as needed. Laws on defamation are therefore of very limited usefulness in preventing online slander.

Of course, if someone feels that they have been slandered, they can answer back and refute what has been said. But it may or may not be worth the trouble. My view is that, generally speaking, it is not. Given that cyber defamation can be perpetrated at no cost to the slanderer, it also carries no weight and can therefore be ignored (unless it appears on a highly reputable site). Moreover, if you respond, you run the risk of helping to bring the slanderous statements to the attention of many more people. In most cases, the person who is being slandered is far better-known than the cyber slanderer. And, for the most part, the watchword should therefore be: Keep Calm and Carry On. One should not feel compelled to defend oneself against a false accusation (J.L. Borges). If, for some reason, a cyberattack has actually harmed a person, or if the defamation poses an opportunity to start up an interesting debate, then, of course, refutation and/or legal recourse are an option. But in this case, the aggrieved party will be taking such a step for his or her own benefit rather than playing into the hands of the slanderer.