When Social Media Is Abused, Can It Be Part of the Solution, Too?

Two recent cases on opposite ends of the globe have highlighted how courts and litigants may be starting to see social media as a tool for solving some of the problems it is used to create.

In the first case, a Malaysian man agreed to tweet an apology 100 times in a row as part of the settlement of a defamation lawsuit against him.  Fahmi Fadzil, a well-known commentator on social issues with over 4,200 Twitter followers, tweeted in January that his pregnant friend had been mistreated by her employers, BluInc Media.

It only took Fahmi a few hours to post an apology, but the company threatened him with a defamation suit and monetary damages anyway.  Fahmi settled the case by agreeing to tweet his apology 100 times over a three-day span, like this:

This was a voluntary settlement, not a court order.  Who’s to say whether it will catch on with judges and litigants in the U.S. and elsewhere?  But it’s easy to see this becoming common in online defamation cases.  Defamation (also called libel or slander) is a matter of state law in the U.S., so the specifics vary a little between jurisdictions.  But it is common for a plaintiff to demand a retraction of a written libel before filing suit, and most defamation statutes that I’m familiar with (including in my home State of Michigan) require such a demand before the plaintiff is able to recover certain types of monetary damages.

For published libels, such retractions “shall be published in the same size type, in the same editions and as far as practicable, in substantially the same position as the original libel; and for other libel, the retraction shall be published or communicated in substantially the same manner as the original libel.”  That language was obviously written with newspapers in mind.  But applied to a defamatory tweet, the result would be a lot like what happened in Malaysia.

Criminal courts have also used social media to right wrongs.  Earlier this month, Lucas Armstrong, 21, of Kalamazoo, Michigan, pled no contest to felony assault after viciously beating another 21-year-old at a party while drunk.  To top that off, Armstrong later posted on his Facebook page: “Shouldn’t drink when stressed. On the other hand, it’s a good mixture for knocking kids the f— out, b—-.”

In addition to sentencing Armstrong to 75 days in jail and other penalties, the judge ordered Armstrong to apologize to his victim online, to urge other people to limit their alcohol use, and to keep these messages up for 30 days on all social networking sites he uses.

The Kalamazoo court was hardly the first to use public shaming as punishment.  In Tennessee, for example, drunk drivers clean roadside trash while wearing signs that say “I’m a drunk driver.” In various cities, convicts have long been sentenced to stand on sidewalks wearing large sandwich-board signs proclaiming their guilt.  The tradition was bound to carry forward into social media sooner or later.

Using social media to redress crimes and torts is bound to raise controversy, but it also seems inevitable.  As social media continues to give rise to more and varied problems, it is bound to also become part of the solution.

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