t seems as if hardly a week goes by without the traditional news media reporting another case of abuse, another case where a person’s name or position in society has been abused in one form or another through a social media platform, through the publication of personal photographs or slanderous comments on their character, events in their lives. The Internet, and in particular social networking sites, have opened a new means for the less than scrupulous to take their personal vendettas, their prejudices and hatred to a new level in a very public manner. Where the news media once held sway, with usually carefully researched and well crafted stories backed up by clearance from a well schooled legal department, social networking sites now allow absolutely anyone with access to the Internet, with a personal opinion, to take anyone to task in almost any manner they wish.
Social networking sites, often with tens of millions of users logging in each day, have taken the place of the local reporter to bring events to a far wider audience. Citizen reporters, a loose term for anyone who writes about local or national events or who voices an opinion on current affairs, have taken the place of professionals in many spheres, and not always to advance the impartial and unbiased truth. They are generally untrained or have no background in the arts of writing and reporting but feel, having access to such a medium, capable of expounding their opinion on a wide range of subjects. These citizen reporters are often not bound by the press laws, or by personal levels of respect for the privacy of others and do not always have access to the full range of information, of facts, which a professional would have at his or her fingertips. Their work, unpaid and highly personal, is based exclusively on minor events or on the reporting of other media on a particular story or over a particular person, be it someone in the limelight through public office, their work or current events linked to their names. Sometimes it is based only on a single utterance, such as a short post on Twitter, on hearsay, on stories propounded by other citizen reporters, by other non-professionals.
Social networking sites, both the major players in a very wide field such as Facebook or Twitter and minor sites linked to local areas or professional and scholastic fields, have stormed the Internet in such a manner that almost everyone, especially in the Western world, has an account with one or more. Many if not all of the social networking sites allow anyone to sign up for their services without any form of background checks, often without payment, simply through the provision of an e-mail address and the completion of a short biography. Without background checks, without any form of verification that a person signing up for social media services is who they claim to be, social networking has become infested with a mass of faked accounts, with tens of thousands of non-existent people. At one stage in 2012, Facebook admitted that up to eighty-six million accounts on their platform are or may well be faked accounts; accounts created in another person’s name or using a name other than that of the actual user. These accounts are used to promote products, opinions, to pass on information or links where the real user, hiding behind their invented name, has a vested interest in not being identified.
With the freedom of the Internet, with the mass of social networking platforms available and the ease of signing up for one service or another, comes a new phenomenon: character assassination. The assumed anonymity of the Internet, the ability to create a character with a few mouse clicks and an uploaded photograph, has brought with it a freedom the original founders of this means of communication had never envisaged. With connections to the right people it is possible to create a story near enough to the truth to be believable and have it carried across many different accounts, through many different people so that, within a very short period of time, it gains a certain level of trust, a concrete base through repetition, an acceptance. Facts and background information are rarely checked or verified during this process of promulgation. A mouse click to copy, to share and an invented story can be passed across thousands of miles to an every widening range of people, added to and expanded with personal opinion, with personal prejudices.
A mild example of this trend was seen in mid 2012 when a relatively new Twitter account spread the story that the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, had died. Within minutes the news of her death had been picked up by hundreds of other Twitter users and by some professional news services. The originating account had been set up, posted a number of seemingly harmless Tweets in order to gain credibility and followers, then changed its screen name to Sky News to add weight to the false information of Thatcher’s death.
Other social networking sites have seen examples of less than harmless pranks played out for a mass public. Defamation of character, the besmirching of a person’s name through false information, through interpretation of facts and events, through stalking and cyber bullying, has become an outlet for some less than scrupulous people. It ranges from stories at Middle or High School level of sexual impropriety through to accusations of corruption, infidelity and worse. The use of hacked, leaked and altered photographs has also become part and parcel of personal attacks against prominent personages, as well as against normal people of all ages.
For celebrities in the public eye, a personal photograph taken for private use which shows rather more skin, or even the intimate areas of their body, can suddenly find its way into public arena through hacking of cell phones, through unscrupulous friends or acquaintances. Stories attached to these images are often from people who have no connection either with the person concerned, nor any real knowledge of the events surrounding the taking of a photograph. The photographs used, intended for a private audience, for a lover or intimate partner, lower the prestige of a celebrity in the public eye, regardless of what other people outside the public gaze would do, and can often come back to haunt a person in later years. The black mark on their character remains, even when a story has been firmly refuted, proven as being untrue, firmly anchored in the minds of those who have witnessed it.
For private individuals, unused to the intense interest of the public sphere, this form of defamation can be life shattering. A fifteen year old High School student, for example, is not going to be able to react to published photographs or stories of an intimate nature in the same way that a celebrity, used to the limelight, to the press and with a back-up team of employees well schooled in such matters, can. Defamation of character can also, in such cases, lead to far more than brief embarrassment for anyone on the brink of adulthood. Intimate photographs taken in a moment of weakness or through the workings of someone claiming to be a friend can ruin a young woman’s name, lead to harassment in school or the workplace, sexual advances and the creation of further stories which, in almost all cases, have nothing to do with the truth. It can result in someone being cut off from their family, becoming the center of unwanted attention both within their own circle and in the media. For an adolescent such adverse publicity can lead to loss of friends, to depression and, in the worst cases, to suicide.
Defamation of character is not limited exclusively to celebrities, to politicians, to people in the public eye. It can be used by anyone, almost always guaranteed anonymity through the Internet, against anyone. Character assassination can also be extended away from the direct target, to their family, to their work colleagues, to a wider circle of friends. It can be used against specific companies and specific products, against a political party or even against an entire country. Social networking sites, with the easy and immediate means of passing on information, of voicing an opinion and the almost unstoppable ability to create as many faked accounts as a person desires, are the new transporters for misinformation, for slander, for character assassination and, with the scope and breadth both of the Internet and of the means of entry to the Internet, is something almost impossible to either stem or to stop completely, regardless of which safety measures a social networking platform may claim to have in place.
The standard form for reporting abuse is to send a mail to an abuse department and request action against a specific party for a specific action. In the case of stolen or faked photographs, and all other images, it is necessary for the person lodging a complaint to prove that they are the legal owners of the image, that they hold copyright rights. For a snapshot taken using a cell phone and passed on to intimate friends, this can be an almost impossible task. When it comes to addressing other forms of abuse, such as written defamation of character, an abuse department is unlikely to be capable of taking any action unless the abuse falls within the terms of their Terms and Conditions of Use and, according to the country in which the social media site is based, breaks the law. Here, too, the proof of abuse must be provided by the abused person, they are required to prove themselves innocent and will be forced through many different legal hoops before any form of action is taken. During this time the stories will continue to exist, will continue to be passed on to others so that, within a very short space of time, it becomes impossible to either stop the original and all its various copies or to restrict the damage done.
The Internet, being an international medium, does not fall under any specific laws. A person writing in France, for example, is not subject to the same laws as a person writing in the United States. A person living in the United States and abused by someone living in France is not going to be able to use local laws against that person, only against the company providing the means of distribution, assuming that this company, the owners of the social networking site, as based and registered in the United States. The recent publication of photographs in Italian and French magazines of members of the British royal family is a prime example of how international defamation can operate. Here the company concerned, a publisher based in Italy with offices and assets in France, was able to publish photographs of an intimate nature as their registered base is outside of the United Kingdom. A legal action against further publication and for damages had to be taken in the respective countries where the publisher operates, and fell outside of the jurisdiction of British law and the British courts. For an ordinary person, defamed online by a foreigner living abroad, such an action is almost impossible.
Defamation of character for celebrities and people in the public eye is considered a part of the risks, the daily life, accepted by an individual when they decide to follow a specific career or enter the public arena. For someone outside of the public gaze, attending High School, a member of a local church, an ordinary person in a small town or city, such an attack on their person is not one of the normal risks associated with daily life. Constantly followed by press and photographers, a media star is more attuned to how they must react, what is acceptable in the public eye and what is not. They are well aware that, providing they have not done anything illegal or which offends against public sensibilities, that the media will, eventually, move on to new stories, other celebrities. Living within a quiet, familiar community, an ordinary person, regardless of their age, is not likely to be able to react to defamation, to faked and false stories, to personal attacks in the same manner. Often they will believe themselves cut off, with no one to talk to, no one they can turn to form help and advice.
A teenager, faced with the publication of intimate photographs designed for one specific and trusted person, will react in a completely different manner to an adult used to media attention. The community in which they live, their surroundings, family and friends, their school, college or workplace are far closer to them than the working environment of a professional, of a film star or politician. Any attacks addressed against them will be taken personally, will disturb far more than they would an adult with greater worldly experience. Here a defamation of character can take on a completely different mass.
Social networking sites are a collection of people linked one to another either by friendship, by profession or by interest. Many will never have actually met one another, may even live in completely different parts of the world and enjoy a living environment others have never experienced. Social networking sites can also be aimed at a specific area of a community, at a professional field or even a certain age group, at college students or school children. The reaction of online acquaintances to defamation in a professional forum is completely different to that within a site designed exclusively for High School students. Here the bulk of those linking one to another know each other personally, meet up with and talk to one another on an almost daily basis. Friendships extend beyond the virtual world of the Internet and into the intimate world of real life. The workings of defamation within this world, within a smaller community of people who know one another personally, is completely different. Any form of attack, on opinion, appearance or more intimate matters, is taken as a personal attack and, because of the nature of the platform, can be blown out of all proportion by the intervention of others.
Defamation of character here, in the social networking sites used by the younger generations, by those still attending school or college, extends beyond the virtual barriers of the Internet and confronts them in their daily lives. What may have seemed, to the originators, as a piece of harmless fun can often be taken by others as a statement of fact. In the case of intimate photography publication, it can bring a label which is not only difficult to shake off but also likely to stick for many years to come. The defamation moves away from the social networking site, away from the Internet and into the real, daily lives of the individuals involved. The individual subjected to defamation, to the publication of intimate photographs or details of their private lives, is confronted with something they cannot simply delete in a world they cannot switch off at the mains. For many this defamation, this revealing of their private and intimate lives is far more than they are capable of handling. They witness the expansion of an original, online accusation into the vitriolic hatred of real life people they are confronted with every day, people who, through connections linked by other connections on the Internet, have possibly no other association with them other than that they are friends of friends, or even further removed. Without the personal knowledge of a person, many are quite happy to expand on a story, to verbally or physically attack the subject in a detached, impersonal manner which, because they are not connected to the subject of their attacks and because real life is totally different to life in a real world, they cannot appreciate the effects of.
Defamation of character on social networking sites is a growing problem. Propounded by the ability to create an anonymous or virtually untraceable character, by the belief of some that whatever is published must either be true to the facts or it wouldn’t be published, by the inexperience of many of those subjected to the attack and by the willingness of others to join in, it will remain a problem for the future. It will remain as much an Internet problem as a social problem which can only be reduced by careful education of Internet users, by the realization that people they are addressing, those they are attacking, are real people and not a made-up creation which disappears when the social networking site is left, when the computer is switched off. But the education of those using the Internet will fall on deaf ears; there will always be people whose sole purpose in life is to wreck the lives of others, either for the personal buzz they feel or as some form of revenge. Rather, the education on how to deal with defamation of character on the Internet, as much as personal attacks in real life, should be part and parcel of every computer course from the earliest stages onwards. Once it is clear that the person taking the brunt of an attack is capable of weathering the storm, knows how to counter any defamation calmly and effectively, the attack loses all purpose and the attacker, lacking the buzz of success, will be forced to give up and move on.