The Cree world is increasingly one that exists online, especially in social media. It’s a great way to connect families and communities but its drawbacks are growing. The impersonal nature of sites like Facebook is leading to incidents of character assassination and cyberbullying.
Many people using this form of communication fail to realize that it is a form of media, however. Their observations and comments are broadcast to an audience, large or small, which poses potential legal problems for the authors of thoughtless or flippant comments, or, much more seriously, those with malicious intent.
Repeating falsehoods and unsupported attacks on social media is the same, legally speaking, as doing so on television or in a newspaper. Those who engage in character attacks on social-media platforms can be sued for libel and defamation.
Recently, I have noticed a couple of troubling incidents involving gossip that evolved as it spread from one person to another. In one case, facts were not verified (they were, in fact, grossly distorted), leading to a long series of obviously defamatory statements that were clearly damaging to the reputation of the person who was the subject of the mean-spirited online gossip session.
The other incident insinuated improper conduct without a shred of supporting proof. Both of these examples could easily have led to libel lawsuits. And, under Canadian libel law, the onus is on the defendant to prove the truth of their statements.
As editor-in-chief of the Nation, I have researched this topic as it could affect the Nation financially and professionally. The pace of posting on Facebook and other social-media sites happens at an incredibly faster pace than we are used in traditional media, but the same legal criteria still apply.
As a publisher, we must prove we were diligent in trying to verify the allegation and whether it is in the public interest. As a newsmagazine, the Nation carefully weighs the seriousness of allegations of improper behaviour and their urgency. As well as ensuring the reliability of the source we must try to get the other side of the story. We must also look at whether or not to publish a statement that is harmful to a person’s reputation as we can be sued. There are serious consequences, even when we simply quote someone making an unsupported comment.
Failing to adhere to these standards can be very costly. For example, in September 2012 Quebec Superior Court awarded a plaintiff $22,000 in moral damages for defamatory statements contained in a posting that appeared on a third party’s Facebook page. The amount could have been higher but the judge said there was no indication it had gone viral or was reported in any other media.
These considerations apply to everyone on the net, not just journalists. In another case, Quebec Superior Court awarded $20,000 for moral damages and $25,000 in punitive damages to plaintiffs who sued over a “successful and vicious campaign” of emails to friends and acquaintances “with a stated goal of destroying their reputation.”
The Court rejected defence arguments that the defendant’s “slanderous, cruel and vengeful” comments should qualified as “gossip” with which the Court should not interfere. The Court held that the comments were a “clear illustration of an abuse of right and the exercise in bad faith” of the right to freedom of expression.
One way to save yourself from a costly court case is simply to ask yourself if you would say those things at a public meeting. In the end, Facebook is a public forum. If you wouldn’t say something to a person’s face, don’t do it on Facebook.