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In social media, why let the facts get in the way?

  • Article by: KEVIN GILES
  • Star Tribune
  • March 14, 2011 - 7:59 AM

One Facebook user, angry over a dispute with a neighbor, ridicules her online as a thief and a liar. On Twitter, someone accuses a murder suspect of being a killer. A blogger discloses sensitive details about a political candidate's personal life.

In Minnesota, and everywhere else, a perplexing phenomenon has emerged as millions of people have their say in social media. In today's world, libelous online comments are rampant -- and yet with the notable exception of the "Johnny Northside" blog case, very few people have filed lawsuits over reckless and untrue statements.

Court actions involving users on youth-dominated social media remain surprisingly low, suggesting a new outspoken culture that's more tolerant of lies, rude behavior and character assassination.

"They've come to accept this kind of hurly-burly Internet conversation as normal," said Mark Anfinson, a Minneapolis media attorney. "There are a lot of folks out there who never had a voice before. They now talk in a context just like in a bar or across the backyard fence."

While loose lips have become common in social media exchanges, consequences loom for people who launch false attacks that threaten to inflict serious harm on someone's reputation. Libel cases, often driven by anger and a quest for vengeance, can cost tens of thousands of dollars in attorney fees and result in unflattering publicity.

Few suits over comments

In Minnesota, only a handful of people have been sued for comments they made online and even fewer cases go to trial. Reasons for this, experts say, include:

•Attorneys can't sue Internet companies -- who have the deep pockets -- for what individual users say because of protection from the federal Communications Decency Act.

•A blurring between fact and fiction continues unabated on Internet sites.

•Many states have no laws to address the endless ways people fabricate information.

•Many online postings are never seen in the first place. Unlike permanent comments in newspapers, postings can slide past without being noticed -- but whether they ever disappear from databases remains in dispute.

•Online postings, depending on how they're delivered, can have narrow audiences.

Ordinary folks are held to the same legal standards as news reporters and anyone else who makes written statements in public, but few seem to know that -- or care.

"People do and say things online that they aren't likely to do in the physical world," said David Ardia, director of the Citizen Media Law Project at Harvard Law School in Boston. Libel suits related to social media are rare nationwide, he said, in part because users can fire off instant replies to nasty comments.

"There's this feeling of engagement that people have available to them, tools they didn't have in the past," Ardia said.

In Minnesota, social media engages millions of residents who post comments on Facebook, My Space, Twitter, personal blogs and elsewhere. Some are citizen journalists, some are back porch commentators, but most are just chatterers who want a say in the world around them.

An estimated 3 million Minnesotans sign onto Facebook alone, although actual use is difficult to verify. Many offending comments relate to politics, religion and interpersonal relationships -- topics sure to inspire arguments in face-to-face conversations.

Social media, Ardia said, has made the world into one big chat with everyone speaking at once. The cacophony of voices seems to race at Mach speed, with new comments continually burying old ones, but experts say it's a mistake to presume libelous comments will disappear entirely.

Writer's responsibility

"The rule is you're responsible for what you say," said Minneapolis attorney Leita Walker. Whether posting on Facebook, writing a letter to the editor of a newspaper, blogging or otherwise expressing an opinion, "you strive to be accurate and fair and make sure what you write is true. You don't want to repeat a rumor to find out the rumor isn't true."

This past week, a challenge over statements that Minneapolis blogger Johnny Northside made in 2009 led to a jury determination Friday that he must pay $60,000 in damages. Northside, whose real name is John Hoff, was sued by Jerry Moore, former director of the Jordan Area Community Council. Northside wrote about Moore's associations with a major mortgage fraud case that sent one man to prison for 16 years. Moore was never charged in the case.

Moore said posts by Hoff or anonymous people caused the University of Minnesota to fire him. In reply, Hoff defended his comments as protected speech, but the jurors disagreed.

Suits against bloggers -- often known as "citizen journalists" -- won't make much money for anyone seeking damages, said Jane Kirtley, a University of Minnesota professor of media law and ethics. "A lot of people recognize that these unaffiliated bloggers don't have a lot of financial resources."

That's another reason many victims don't sue.

Libel also can be hard to prove. Plaintiffs have to show damage to their reputations.

The motivation, then, for filing suit? Anger, outrage, a sense of being violated in a public way among friends and neighbors.

From the opposing point of view, a blogger might embrace free speech protections under the First Amendment. Or, more commonly, a caustic-tongued user on Facebook or My Space doesn't know the law and doesn't care.

Anfinson, who teaches a media law course at the University of St. Thomas, said younger people today worry far less about libeling someone because of a higher tolerance for online name-calling that older readers of newspapers won't accept.

To younger people, Ardia said, suing somebody seems like a heavy-handed, disproportionate way to respond to offending comments. But he also thinks it's hard to track much of the underlying turmoil.

Many people, instead of hiring attorneys, will send threatening letters and e-mails to people they think have done them harm, demanding that the offensive post be removed.

"The surface might seem very calm," Ardia said, "but below it there might be a lot more going on than we're aware of."

Kevin Giles • 651-735-3342 Twitter: @stribgiles

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