Social media and defamation: can you be sued for what you say?

We look at when online comments, reviews or feedback can leave you open to prosecution.

Tablet being used for social media signifying social media and defamation

Last week Facebook reiterated its commitment to ‘cooperation with the UK law enforcement authorities on hate speech’ after yet another case of online abuse hit the headlines.  A hotly debated topic for a long time, the problem of policing social media has recently been thrust back into the spotlight after high profile footballers including Marcus Rashford and Ian Wright made public racial abuse that they have received via social networks.

Prosecuting social media

Increasingly, governments are looking at ways to put pressure on social media companies to take a more proactive response in dealing with defamatory and offensive comments made on their platforms. But much more needs to be done to ensure that those responsible are held to account. Unfortunately, even when the perpetrators of this abuse are identified and prosecuted it appears that the sentences may not be sufficient to be a deterrent. Ian Wright recently expressed his disappointment that a man found guilty of racially abusing him via direct message on (Facebook-owned) Instagram received no criminal conviction.

Living our lives online

This very serious subject raises more general questions about how we live our lives online. For instance, what are the potential consequences if someone leaves feedback on a business’ website when they are not satisfied with the service that has been provided to them? It is important to be mindful of what we post online to make sure that it does not stray into being libellous. A quick glance at most restaurant, retail or business websites will usually show a smorgasbord of different reviews, ranging from gratitude for a good service to mixed reviews – what was appreciated and what could have been done better – and complaints that the service provided did not meet expectations in the slightest.

Companies want your comments

These comments are extremely valuable to companies, and certainly at Peacock & Co we are mindful to take all feedback into account. A reputable company will always enjoy hearing that clients have had a positive experience and will pay particular attention to anything that could have been done better, striving to improve based on these comments. This type of feedback can be essential to giving clients the best possible service in the future, as well as signposting the complaints procedure when necessary.

Crossing the line into libel

Nevertheless, while constructive criticism should always be welcomed and available, the recent case of Summerfield Browne Ltd v Waymouth highlights the potential pitfalls when a comment or review is adjudged to have crossed the line into libel. In this case, the High Court heard how Philip James Waymouth wrote the following on the Trustpilot website referring to Summerfield Browne Ltd as: “A total waste of money another scam solicitor” (sic).

Mr Waymouth’s defences were honest opinion, truth, public interest, and the issue of whether the law firm had suffered significant harm. The first three defences were said to have no reasonable prospect of success by Master David Cook. Mr Waymouth was given permission to file and serve an amended defence to deal with the issue of significant harm, however no such amended defence was filed and served. It was also recorded that no further details had been given as to the reason for the review having been posted and that Mr Waymouth had failed to engage with the law firm’s dispute resolution procedure. As Master Cook stated in in his judgment: “A complaint should always be the first stage in resolving any issues of customer satisfaction”.

The cost of libel

Mr Waymouth was ordered to remove the review and pay the law firm £25,000 in damages as well as their legal costs on an indemnity basis of £3,450. It was also ordered that Trustpilot remove the review.

Websites like Trustpilot are an increasing part of our daily lives – never have we been asked more to review products, services and share experiences online. For the most part, these are given with little thought. However, the above decision highlights the care that ought to be taken when leaving a review on a public website. Our lives online should be subject to the law of the land and, with that, proper scrutiny.  For more information on libel, please contact our dispute resolution team.

This article was written by Daniel Bolster

Please note the contents contained in this article are for general guidance only and reflection the position at time of posting. Legal advice should be sought before taking action in relation to specific matters.

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