We’ve all felt neglected or mistreated by a large company at some point and the Internet has fast become a forum for people to express their dismay. Social media channels like Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram are often used to publish, in some cases over-the-top, negative remarks and straight up urging other consumers to boycott certain companies.
There is a fine line, however, between venting anger and posting libel comments aimed at businesses and individuals alike for the world to see. It’s easy enough to create multiple accounts to hide one’s identity and engage forums in a frenzied ALL CAPS RAGE.
Within hours Twitter was flowing with comments like: “Horse meat in burgers? All part of a stable diet… #tesco”, and “Had a Tesco burger – Had the trots all night.”
While humorous tweets like these are quite harmless, they should not be underestimated. This is a lesson Tesco leaned the hard way when they responded with a tweet saying: “It’s sleepy time so we’re off to hit the hay! See you at 8am for more #TescoTweets.”
The PR-stunt failed miserably and only led to the hate campaign kicking up a couple of notches. After a few days Tesco apologized for its tweet and said it was in bad taste.
Online defamation is often treated as a civil wrong, or a tort. A person or company that has suffered a defamatory statement may sue under defamation laws. This is very tricky though since most countries have different laws and it’s not always easy to track down multiple account holders who can practically post their comments from any computer connected to the web.
Defamation laws may also contradict freedom of speech laws, making it even harder to press charges.
One company that doesn’t shy away from unleashing its army of lawyers is Irish no-frills airline Ryanair. This airline is currently suing the Daily Mail and Daily Mirror publishers for saying that its safety standards aren’t up to par. Recently, they included one of its former pilots who spoke out against the company in a documentary in the suit, saying that they seek “total vindication”.
This kind of rhetoric may discourage people from speaking out in traditional media, but social media is still ripe with negative remarks – “There are two types of people on this planet, people who hate flying on Ryanair, and fucking liars,” @deadmau5.
As long as websites provide people with an outlet for defamatory comments and are slow to moderate posts, we will always have cases where people will exercise their freedom of speech. We will also have companies ready to crush any such people by any means necessary.