These days, the fastest and often most powerful way to destroy someone’s reputation is by posting something negative or embarrassing about them on social media. Anyone can say virtually anything about another person whether it’s true or not.
Social media sites typically don’t automatically remove content unless it’s considered sexually explicit, threatening to someone or could cause public harm – such as false “medical” information. As we’ve seen, they’re not always adept at intercepting and removing content like that before millions of people have seen and spread it.
Businesses have negative things posted about them all the time on their own social media sites and review sites like Yelp. It’s typically not grounds for civil legal action unless it’s defamatory. For something to be defamatory, the person who made the statement (in writing or verbally) must have been aware that it was untrue or at least didn’t bother to find out whether it was true or not.
A post on Twitter can make it around the world and be trending within minutes – particularly if it involves a public figure. However, a “regular” person or a local business can have their reputation destroyed just as quickly.
What’s necessary to bring a lawsuit?
To bring a lawsuit for defamation, a plaintiff not only has to show that the statements meet the definition of defamatory we described above but that those statements caused them compensable harm. They also need to have been presented as statements of fact and not opinion.
For example, if someone posts a picture of rats on Yelp that they said was taken in a restaurant’s kitchen that was actually just a stock photo they got off the internet, that could certainly be considered defamation and certainly harmful to their business and reputation. On the other hand, if someone simply posts that their meal was undercooked and their server was rude, that’s likely going to be interpreted as their opinion. A business can’t sue everyone who leaves a negative review.
Going after an individual who posts something defamatory may require some investigation to get their true identity. Many people post online under all kinds of pseudonyms. However, it can be – and is – done. If you believe you have a defamation case, it’s wise to first take a screenshot of the post to preserve it and then to seek legal guidance