11 August 2022

Social media users beware! A defamatory post could land you in court

By Susanna Mayfield, Associate, Hayes + Storr.

Sharing ideas and opinions over the internet has many benefits. It enables us to communicate quickly and to relay information easily with the simple click of a button. But what few people realise is that when you post something online which is negative or disparaging – whether via a social media platform, a news outlet, a customer review site or even a special interest forum – you could be falling foul of the rules on defamation; thereby exposing yourself to the risk of being sued for damages and legal costs.

A negative or disparaging online statement may be considered defamatory, or to be more accurate libellous, where it is viewed by a sufficient number of people and where it says something about an individual, business or organisation which is untrue and which causes (or is likely to cause) those affected serious reputational or financial harm.

Once something has been published online, it can be difficult to retract the statement and to stop it being shared and reposted multiple times. For this reason, if you have posted something online that has now come back to bite you, it is important you take legal advice as soon as possible to limit the potential fallout.

The test for defamation

Unless the post you have made can be justified on one or more of the legal defence grounds listed below, a statement may be classed as defamatory if all of the following three conditions are met:

  • the statement in question is one which tends to lower the reputation or opinion of an individual, business or organisation in the estimation of the wider public;
  • any accusations which tend to have a substantially adverse effect on the way an individual, business or organisation is treated by the wider public. For example, causing them to be shunned or avoided, or to be subject to hatred, ridicule or contempt; and
  • your statement has caused, or is likely to cause, serious reputational and/or serious financial harm.

Legal defences

It may be possible for you to defend a claim of defamation on a number of different grounds, including where you can show that what you said in your statement:

  • was substantially true; or
  • was an expression of your opinion, based on facts which existed at the time, and which identified those facts and reflects the opinion that any honest person could have had; or
  • was on a matter of public interest and you held a reasonable belief that it was in the public interest for your statement to be published.

An example of a successful defamation claim

There are many cases of online defamation that have come before the courts in recent years, including the highly publicised 2021 case of Wozniak & Kelly v Randall. This involved blog posts made by Ms Randall as the operator of a local website, called ‘Concerned of Rosgill’, which made various allegations about Mr Wozniak and Ms Kelly and their (allegedly unjustified) attempts to claim ownership of a 30-metre area of unregistered grassland outside of their home.

In fact, Mr Wozniak and Ms Kelly had been told by their solicitor that they had legal grounds to claim ownership of the land in question and, in reliance on this, they had been trying to limit access to the land by local people who had become accustomed to using it as they pleased.

There were a number of incidents in which Ms Randall, other villagers and even a carer, clashed with Mr Wozniak and Ms Kelly about this issue and this caused a lot of bad feeling on all sides.

Regrettably, Ms Randall decided to express her frustrations online and proceeded to make what Mr Wozniak and Ms Randall alleged to be a series of hurtful and defamatory posts which caused them to become isolated, shunned and excluded and to feel stressed, harassed and embarrassed.

In her defence, Ms Randall claimed that everything she had said was substantially true, but the court rejected this and ordered her to pay £15,000 compensation for the serious harm her posts had caused, plus legal costs estimated to amount to over £60,000. She also faces the risk of further action if she repeats the defamatory statements again or seeks to republish her original posts.

Losing a defamation claim

Irrespective of the outcome of any defamation action, it will undoubtedly be a costly exercise for all concerned. In the recent so-called ‘Wagatha Christie’ scandal, Rebekah Vardy (wife of Leicester City footballer Jamie Vardy), recently lost her High Court action against Coleen Rooney.

In the action, Vardy claimed that Rooney had defamed her by outing her as the source of Rooney’s private social media posts being disclosed to the media. When Rooney identified Vardy in the now infamous words which she posted on Instagram: “It’s…Rebekah Vardy’s account”, Vardy brought a defamation action against Rooney in an attempt to restore her reputation.

The Hon. Mrs Justice Steyn concluded that Rooney’s comments were substantially true and therefore, Vardy failed in her action. This means that Vardy is likely to be responsible for a six-figure sum, representing her own legal costs and a proportion of Rooney’s legal costs.

How we can help

Where defamation is alleged you need to act quickly in seeking legal advice, whether you are the victim or the alleged perpetrator. Online statements can be shared rapidly and reposted to different forums without your knowledge and consent, thereby potentially compounding the problem and increasing the nature and extent of the harm that a statement may cause.

By speaking to us as soon as an issue arises, we can help you to take appropriate action (including having the post removed where appropriate) and thereby ensure that the matter is dealt with swiftly and on the best possible terms from your point of view.

For further help and information, contact Susanna Mayfield on 01328 863231 or email susanna.mayfield@hayes-storr.com.

This article is for general information only and does not constitute legal or professional advice. Please note that the law may have changed since this article was published.