The BBC has reported a case in Northern Ireland in which a High Court judge has awarded damages of £35,000 against an unknown person who defamed people on Facebook.
The identities of the three individuals who were libelled directly and by implication – and the business in which they worked – have not been revealed at the request of the ‘well-known’ company. However, the online campaign by an unknown person (or persons) was set against two company directors and a staff member and went on for months until legal action was commenced by the plaintiffs.
The judge, Mr Justice McCloskey, found that “the defendants’ statements, which are both words and images, took the form of a series of gratuitous and malicious slurs against the character and reputation of the plaintiffs“. He warned that misuse of social media was a “disturbing trend“.
The case was brought against two defendants, Facebook Ireland Ltd and an unkown defendent who went by two pseudonyms. The case against Facebook was dismissed, but the claim continued against the unkown second defendant.
McCloskey said, “It’s indisputable that social networking sites can be a force for good in society, a truly positive and valuable mechanism. However, they are becoming increasingly misused as a medium by which to threaten, abuse, harass, intimidate and defame members of society.
“The solution for this grave mischief is far from clear and lies well beyond the powers of this court. Self-regulation or statutory regulation may well be necessary.”
Indeed, without well-established widespread regulation or statutory direction, the courts (and employers) are left to treat each case on its own facts as it comes before them. In this case, the judge gave consideration to the length of time the defamatory material had appeared online, in keeping with the Director of Public Prosecutions’ (DPP) recent draft guidelines, which suggested that remorse would also have some sway in determining whether to prosecute.
Althought the person(s) responsible has not been identified, the financial penalty and legal costs will hang over them should they ever become known. In the world of social media, it is unlikely that a ‘troll’ will remain unidentified for long, though the fact they have retained anonymity thus far is surprising.