Sara Alderman|@sea6789 Is there a way to protect against libel and protect free speech at the same time, or will one have to be sacrificed for the greater good? Libel on the Internet has been around since, well the Internet. Bloggers took libel to a new level and now Twitter has created a platform for well, microlibeling. (I know I made that up.)
After having a bad experience what is first thing we do? Grab our smart phones and tweet away. Complaining is one of the top uses for Twitter, and companies are taking notice. More and more companies have departments or agencies monitoring social media for customer service, and many companies will give discounts or freebies to disgruntled customers.
Complaining after having cold food or an awful waitress comes with the territory. If you were there it is your First Amendment right to express yourself. What if you were not there, though? I know it is not ethically right to falsely complain about a place or service you have never been to, but is legal?
People do it all the time. They complain on Twitter without having actually been harmed just to see if they can get freebies. The practice is unethical and doing it is shady, but I also think it is libel, or microlibel.
Beware of what you tweet. In fact, when you are angry you might want to put the phone down and walk away. Calling someone a name or blaming a restaurant for food poisoning when you haven’t eaten there may seem harmless, but you can be sued.
Libel is one thing, but actionable libel; well that is what is missing from Twitter and other social media sites. Proving fault, falsity, injury, defamation, identification and publication can seem like a stretch in a sentence or two. In my opinion, identification, publication and injury would all be pretty simple but proving some of the other key points may be more difficult.
Why isn’t microlibel a word yet? My theory is that not enough people are paying attention. Most people get away with it because one tweet of 140 characters or less will not scream at a company or person to sue. Once the first Twitter/libel case has gone through the court system and sets case law precedents, more people will be sued, especially if there is a large jury award.
Another reason people (and companies) are getting away with microlibel is the anonymity that the Internet can supply. By using fake email addresses, Twitter handles, screen names and blog accounts you could “work the system” and get away with microlibel.
What these individuals don’t know is technology is working against, not for them. Tracking IP addresses, Twitter handles, email addresses etc. can all be done pretty easily. Finding out if you have actually visited the restaurant or went to the event is not rocket science. Every tweet you send and picture you upload from your phone has a location number on it, and if it is on the Internet (unless your privacy settings are super strict,) anyone can see it and find out if you were really where you said you were. No matter how secretive you think you are being, you cannot hide on the Internet.
There has been and will always be unethical, lying, cheating and shady people out there in this world. Microlibel may only be a made up word by a college senior but one day there will be lawsuits and settlements because of it. Once one person, or company, decides a tweet is worth suing over and going to court instead of settling, microlibeling will be included in the next Webster’s dictionary edition.