Earlier this month, we discussed the ways in which companies should navigate negative critiques and reputation management in the Age of Social Media. One option includes the pursuit of litigation, often demonstrated through claims for defamation. This course of action can typically be found in the context of a negative review: a company provides a service, customer is unhappy with the service, customer posts negative review about company online. In California, a company that wishes to claim said review has crossed a line must then prove (1) the customer made a false, defamatory statement concerning the company, (2) the customer made an unprivileged publication to a third party, (3) the publisher of the false statements acted at least negligently in its publication, and (4) the statement had a natural tendency to injure or cause special damage.
In today’s political climate, the phrase “fake news” gets bandied about quite a bit. In addition to its more traditional meaning—news that is false, purposefully misrepresented or outright propaganda—fake news is also sometimes used to characterize any news published that the target or subject of disagrees with or dislikes. As the recent election cycle demonstrated, the proliferation of fake news has become an issue with which candidates and businesses alike must contend. But while the extent to which targeted misinformation can swing an election or otherwise affect a political environment is open to debate, for businesses, an ounce of fake can yield pounds of reputational and financial damage. The advent of social media has both catalyzed and weaponized the danger posed by all forms of fake news, and like so many technology-powered issues, the law lags behind in enacting new protections for businesses and individuals alike. Fortunately, some old causes of action may offer remedies for injuries inflicted by fake news stories.
Last month, a New York trial court dismissed a complaint against Donald J. Trump and others brought by political consultant and commentator Cheryl Jacobus that alleged, in part, a defamation claim (libel) based on tweets by Trump. While the case is notable because it involves Trump and his penchant for tweeting personal attacks, it is also notable because it provides additional guidance on how the courts are handling defamation claims based on statements made via Twitter (and other social media networks).