- Changes to libel law came in on 1 January 2014 via the Defamation Act 2013
- 12-month time limit to start legal action for libel if it appeared in print or online – used to be no time limit for online, this has now been brought into line with print
- libel claimants have to show that their reputation has been seriously harmed
- if you’ve got something wrong, apologise early and remove or correct defamatory content
- if a media or other outlet has got something wrong about you, you may be able to ask that a correction/apology is prominently displayed, The Times recently put a correction on their front page
- apologies and corrections are legally considered to undo any harm caused. This can be significant, as was seen in the Sunday Mirror and Midland Heart Housing Association ‘Benefits Street’ case
- if you’re issuing press releases or similar about prosecutions, stick to the facts of the case and avoid comment on the character or behaviour of the person who’s been prosecuted
- if frontline workers are attacked they can take out a personal libel case, councils and other public sector organisations are becoming increasingly politically wary of taking action on individuals’ behalf. In 2012 The Guardian questioned if councils should be doing this
- newspapers and other publishers are not immediately liable for unmoderated comments under their articles, however they do become liable if they’re notified of an issue and don’t do something about it
- the comments function on Facebook pages cannot be turned off or moderated, but comments can be hidden or deleted. Facebook would be liable for comments made if they were notified of libellous content and they didn’t take any action
- a council cannot sue for libel, as reported by The Independent following an action brought by Derbyshire County Council against The Times and others, “because any governmental body should be open to uninhibited public criticism and to allow such actions would place an undesirable fetter on freedom of speech.”
- What is the definition of a ‘publisher’? If you have more than two people publishing news-related content, you may be defined as a publisher and be sued for libel as outlined in the Crime and Courts Act 2013. Exceptions include public bodies and charities publishing “news-related material in connection with the carrying out of its functions.” and multi-author blogs that come under “microbusiness” definitions
- From 3 November 2015, publishers that are not part of a charter-approved regulator, and are sued for libel or harassment, may end up bearing both their and the claimant’s costs (again, as outlined in the Crime and Courts Act 2013)
- The Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) which replaced the Press Complaints Commission post-Leveson inquiry, will not be charter-approved, but another regulator – IMPRESS – aims to be
It’s a shoddy practice, and while not a purely online phenomenon, is no doubt compounded by the explosion in user generated content and the option to remain anonymous or hide behind a pseudonym afforded to online commentary.
For some people and organisations, the temptation to use social media to pose as independent commentators to post positive opinions about themselves or their products (known as sockpuppetry) – or post negative comments about competitors – appears to have proved too strong to resist.
Alex Wade wrote about astroturfing last month in The Guardian, citing an eminent history professor caught out posting critical reviews on Amazon about rival historian’s work. Wade also states that: “In the travel sector especially, the problem has grown to epidemic proportions. Allegations of dirty tricks abound on quality review websites as hotel and restaurants use the sites to attack rivals or boost their own ratings by posting fake reviews.”
Wade statement was prescient. The Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) adjudicated yesterday that the website TripAdvisor’s claims that it carried “Reviews you can trust” and “Reviews from real travellers” are misleading. The ASA has told TripAdvisor not to claim or imply that all the reviews that appeared on the website were from real travellers, or were honest, real or trusted.
Addressing astroturfing in Public Relations and the Social Web, Rob Brown states: “Apart from being unethical … it is likely that you will be found out. This will create significant damage for your brand or organisation.”
And if that wasn’t enough, exposed astroturfers may also find themselves prosecuted under the Consumer Protection from Unfair Trading Regulations 2008.
The message is clear: keep off the fake grass.
Photo: Day 100, 365, KEEP OFF THE GRASSby Andreas-Photography via Flickr