Slander in our day and age | Daily News

Slander in our day and age

Monitoring social media platforms is not an easy task.
Monitoring social media platforms is not an easy task.

Suing for libel was never fun for the plaintiffs and if there was a defendant that was accused unfairly that was far from fun for the latter either. But there was a way in which newspapers were kept in check.

From time immemorial of course people could be slandered in the public space without it having to be through the newspapers. People could be slandered by letters being written to various folk who are important, or connected to the person being maligned.

It was called the poison-pen. But poison-pen wielders were not generally the purveyors of libelous material. The newspapers usually did that job.

So there was a fairly circumscribed space in which libel originated, and it was easy to keep track of libelous content and easy for victims to be identified and for perpetrators to be brought to justice.

Not that dealing with newspaper libel has been satisfactory in any way at all. Courts have to consider several angles before reaching a conclusion, and these include issues such as public interest so called.

Of course there is something called public interest but then there are those who also take cover behind public interest defences. But newspapers are fairly ‘out there’ and newspaper libel is not a non-navigable morass in the main.

Case by case, things could be looked at clinically with newspaper defamation. But then came social media and now the issue of libel is bewildering and to call it a minefield would be understatement.

What are the laws that deal with social media libel in this country? It’s the same laws that deal with libel — or defamation — in general.

That’s the way it is in most countries including in the so called advanced liberal democracies. At least with the press there is something called self-regulation — by name at the very least — even though that’s mostly a farce in a lot of cases, in many countries, but that’s a different story.

With regard to social media there will not be any such thing and there cannot be any such thing either, for obvious reasons. Social media is huge and it cannot be self-regulated because each account belongs to an individual or an individual entity.

Though a platform such as say Instagram may state that it’s practicing self-regulation, that’s not organised and cannot be organised in the face of the fact that the individual accounts are massive in number. In other words individuals are on their own, and they can libel or defame others with a few strokes on the keyboard.


There were the recent cases of libel which grabbed international attention which had much to do with social media one way or another. The first of this was the case between Johnny Depp the actor, and his ex-wife Amber Herd.

A less publicized but not any less talked about case was christened Wagatha Christie, and was a libel case involving the wives of top football stars in the UK. In the second suit the libel itself took place on social media, when one wife of a football star Ms. Coleen Rooney made an allegation that her private Instagram posts were leaked to a tabloid newspaper by a wife of another soccer star, Rebecca Vardy.

In the first suit, Amber Herd was accused of libeling her ex-husband in newspaper articles and it was in that sense a classic case of newspaper libel, but what was different was the social media hype surrounding the case.

Many commentators were of the view that social media played a disproportionate role in determining the outcome of the case, even though Jury members were forbidden from accessing their social media accounts for a certain crucial duration of the trial. The very fact that this kind of stricture had to be placed on Jury members is a sign that social media plays a huge role sometimes, even though the original libel was in the print media. The libel associated with the case in social media may be worse for the parties concerned than the libel in the print media that caused offence in the first place.

In the so-called Wagatha Christie trial the victim did her own detective work and discovered that it was Rebecca Vardy, her husband’s team mate’s wife that was leaking stories about her private life from her Instagram account to the Sun newspaper. That led to the play on words that caused the trial to be christened the ‘Wagatha Christie’, with Wag being the term for wives and girlfriends of football stars.


It was a single Instagram post that caused the plaintiff Ms. Vardy to take the matter to court, but then she found that it was a grave miscalculation to have done so because the Judge determined that she had indeed defamed the defendant. The problem with the outcome for her was that her name, if it was tarnished by the first Instagram story of the defendant, was battered more severely due to the social media reactions to the trial itself.

She was seen as the all-round villain who caused the stories to be leaked and then wanted to ‘clear her name’ by basically calling the victim a liar. Be that as it may, the social media implications of libel are hardly ever taken into account these days despite all these sensational cases and the outcomes or the intervening circumstances that have so much to do with social media.

In this country we have had the situation — repeated several times over — of schoolchildren, particularly schoolgirls committing suicide due to what appeared on social media about them. The tragedy is that there has been very little coverage of these stories and hardly any analysis leave alone concern about why the phenomenon of social media character assassination is not a topic of any significance in the national discourse.

What can be done about social media libel and defamation in general? Awkwardly, and one might add flagrantly, politicians have sometimes dealt with this issue when they are the targets by banning social media or restricting access. This is deplorable under any circumstances, and it is a positive sign that politicians have been forced to think twice these days before placing restrictions on social media, particularly when they are trying to combat perceived attacks against them.


But ordinary people in any case do not have the ability to ban social media or to restrict access of persons maligning them falsely on social media platforms. Of course they can report the perpetrators and try to have their accounts banned, but this is a long process and schoolgirls who commit suicide due to negative social media exposure for instance, did not have a chance to deal with any of these issues by lodging complaints.

Reporting is a complicated process — it takes time — and very often does not yield results. It is sad therefore that the abuse of persons on social media is mostly as a result of the fact that the law hasn’t caught up with the problem, and there is very little recourse to people who feel genuinely maligned or threatened by behaviors of fellow users of the various different platforms.

Granted of course that it is very difficult to regulate social media and by extension that much more difficult to control social media libel and defamation. But there has to be a start, and despite the fact that there were sensational cases internationally such as the mentioned Depp-Herd trial and the Wagatha Christie lawsuit, there isn’t much at all that’s happening to ensure that something is done to deal with these new complexities. The old systems, the old libel laws etc. aren’t adequate and that’s obvious, but there seems to be an insistence that new modes of libel should be dealt with, with the same old archaic laws and in the same old archaic approach. If internationally they are not interested at least in this country there has to be some move towards addressing these issues not least because there are schoolchildren that are committing suicide, even though of course in very small numbers, due to abuse on social media platforms.

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