In an ever-changing technological universe, social media platforms constantly orbit in everyday life; whether your notification feed provides the latest headlines, entertaining video clips, or updates from followers, are sourced from these websites. Platforms like Twitter, Instagram, Facebook, and Snapchat provide these everyday notifications. It is undeniable that social media platforms can provide significant social benefits. Most worldwide humanitarian crises, social movements, political campaigns, charitable organizations, and the like gain support and recognition through posts on social media with ease. Yet the instantaneous nature of these posts, with literally a ‘click of a button,’ can also damage its viewers.
The rise of cyberbullying with the ability to share statements without actually facing the intended recipient has ruined reputations and destroyed relationships. These destructive statements cause actual harm to their victims, with these victims often wanting some form of relief. The victim’s relief may come in the form of bringing a defamation lawsuit. But who is responsible for these published statements: the user who wrote them or the provider who released them? Or both?
Defamation and its Elements
Defamation compensates a victim for harmful false statements communicated to third parties. Defamatory statements are statements of fact that tend to harm the victim’s reputation, expose the victim to ridicule, or cause the victim to lose respect in their community. The elements of defamation are that (1) the actor published, (2) a defamatory statement of fact, (3) of and concerning the victim, and (4) caused reputational harm to the victim. These requirements exist to prevent lawsuits where the statement could be an honest criticism or a general expression of opinions. A publication is any communication to a third person where that person perceives and understands the communication. To be actionable, a plaintiff must show that the defendants made false, defamatory statements of or concerning the plaintiff, which were published to a third person.
Libel vs. Slander: Differentiating between Written and Spoken Defamation
Written defamation is called libel, and spoken defamation is called slander. Libel and slander have subcategories, and most states recognize the distinctions between them. Specifically, in North Carolina, there are three classes of libel:
- Defamatory publications.
- Publications where one of the interpretations is defamatory.
- Publications that are not defamatory but it consideration with other circumstances become defamatory.
On the other hand, North Carolina recognizes two classes of slander: remarks which are defamatory where malice is presumed and remarks which are not defamatory but, combined with other factors, become defamatory. Libel can also include published statements on the Internet. However, not every unfavorable tweet, hateful comment, or controversial caption constitutes libel.
The Role of Section 230 in Protecting Social Media Platforms from Liability
Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1996 states, “No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider” (47 U.S.C. § 230). This Section immunizes social media platforms from lawsuits if one of their users responds using or posts a defamatory statement. There are two main provisions in Section 230: one that protects providers and users from liability when they do not remove the content, and one that protects them from liability when they do remove content. But a computer service can be liable if it, in whole or part, creates or encourages the creation of harmful information. So, Instagram is not to blame for unflattering comments on posts, Twitter isn’t at fault when that awful tweet is on your feed, and Facebook isn’t responsible for deleting every nasty status update.
The Internet’s growth since the enactment of Section 230 in 1996 has been unprecedented. Businesses can reach customers worldwide, families can connect across oceans and borders, and news updates can spread in seconds. As with everything, all the positive impact the Internet has provided for communication comes with its fair share of negative consequences in giving a platform to spread it. Social media platforms are unique forums where intimate conversations, responsive commentary, and public discussions occur. But, if these communications take a nasty turn, individuals can’t play the infamous “blame game” and hold the platform itself liable for publishing it.
At King Law Offices, we understand the complexities of defamation and the impact it can have on individuals and their reputations. If you have been the victim of defamatory statements on social media, we can help. Contact us today at (888) 748-KING to schedule a consultation.