Libel Is Libel — Even On The Internet

On March 31, 2008, I noticed an entry in my Twitter feed by a blogger who I had recently started following because he had followed me. I now realize that he was following everyone and their brother to build up his blog about making money blogging and I had fallen for it. The link in the entry took me to a blog post claiming that prominent blogger Darren Rowse had filed for bankruptcy because he had never made the six figure income that he claimed from blogging. I suspected an April Fool’s joke except that it was not April Fool’s Day in the U.S. and I knew that this fellow was located in the Midwestern U.S. Darren Rowse is, however, an Australian. So it occurred to me that it might be April 1 in Australia. I still suspected a “joke” but given all the circumstances I wasn’t sure. It is libelous per se to accuse a business person of fraudulently misrepresenting himself and his business and to say that he filed bankruptcy. It is easy to imagine how this could be damaging to someone’s reputation particularly if that person makes his living by claiming to know how to make lots of money.

The false story got picked up by someone who apparently believed it was true and repeated it on Darren’s Wikipedia entry. Darren also got calls and emails from concerned business partners and independent contractors who were worried about getting payment and whether they had been misled. Darren had to spend his time quelling their fears and nipping this “joke” in the bud. That really isn’t funny stuff or just harmless “link bait.”

As a lawyer, I tend to look at everything cynically — an occupational hazard. One of my earliest tasks as a young lawyer was to review the fine print in a large client’s advertising looking for potentially misleading claims. I still enjoy looking for and uncovering the hidden scam in advertisements. Even so, I Googled the “news” to see if I could verify it elsewhere, because I recognized that if it was untrue that it was libelous and, therefore, only a fool would post a false claim like that.

When I couldn’t verify the story from any other source, I concluded that it must be false. I read elsewhere that the blogger who posted this “joke” considered it humorous “link bait” and he figures that it worked because Darren Rowse blogged about it and he thinks linked to him. I guess the joke is on him because Darren didn’t give him the link. For the same reason, I refuse to mention him by name or to link to him here.

The blogger also claimed that he “kept it to himself” except for a few Diggs and such. I know that isn’t true because I found out about the post when he tweeted it for all the world of Twitter to see. Even if he hadn’t twittered it, posting to an Internet blog with an RSS feed isn’t keeping it to yourself.

The blogger who posted this unfunny joke tried to laugh off the negative reaction as bloggers taking themselves too seriously, but there is a very real difference between lighthearted fun and trying to build your own reputation and following at the expense of others and their reputations. If you want to be taken seriously, you need to remember this distinction.

I heard someone else say on a podcast that you ought to have “the right to gossip” on the Internet like you do everywhere else. The fact is that you do not have a right to gossip when the gossip is false. That is what slander suits are made of. This is magnified when the false gossip is put online and shared with the world. The lesson here — Libel is libel no matter where it is published or what your intention.

Copyright Notice: All Rights Reserved Harry Thomas Hackney, P.A. 2008