It’s surprising that we haven’t seen more defamation lawsuits during this age of social media. State tort regulation for libel and slander may have played some part in minimizing lawsuits between people. Online anonymity is one of the reasons why people cannot pursue online attackers.
Against that background, however, several lawsuits were brought against social media giants in the past several years. Plaintiffs’ lawyers in these cases tried to chip away with online defamation expert witnesses. The focus of the expert witness in these cases circled around the manner in which social media sites monitored individual postings, if at all.
The litigation is starting now to turn away from individual posts and towards manipulation of content by the social media sites. Lawyers are suing on claims that social media companies are manipulating user reviews as a lure for businesses to buy advertisements on the site. In one case, the allegations are that businesses are being pressured to enter into advertising contracts in exchange for more favorable user ratings.
These latest developments are coming straight out of tech sources, so you know you’re going to need a double-barrel approach: an e-commerce technology expert witness and a defamation expert witness. The firm with experts who can crack this code will most certainly prevail. It’s a veneer that “anything goes on the Internet.” However, there’s a powerful belief system among programmers, which would violate this saying. If true, it would be akin to fixing a horse race.
It would be ironic if these allegations prove to be true since social media sites are supposed to be based on real user reviews. The sites will be exposed to liability in an area that has historically insulated reviewers. The Internet may have facilitated a bigger public display than a broadsheet, but critics have published since the advent of print. With the U.S. Supreme Court protections for defendants as high as New York Times v. Sullivan (1964) and Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., (1974) the cause of action for defamation has not inspired an army of legal specialists or expert witnesses.
Regardless what the official position might be from these social media companies, they are sufficiently concerned to have started lobbying The Hill for tort reform.
By Paloma A. Capanna, Attorney & Policy Analyst