Digital Defamation, the Press, and the Law
Can we reform the online culture of rampant libel without making it too easy to harass legitimate media?
Although nobody keeps score, it seems safe to say that our flourishing digital media routinely leave more people bruised and bloodied than any prior communication technology—more people than ever suffering personal disparagement, false allegations, character assassination, physical threats, and reputational sliming. Defamation, it seems, is booming.
Nevertheless, compared with lamentations over fake news and political bias, defamation doesn’t come up much in media criticism, even though it’s as common to social media as fraudulent solicitation is to email traffic. That reticence may change now that two strongly conservative Supreme Court justices have denounced the cornerstone constitutional opinion that has restrained libel suits for nearly 50 years, New York Times v. Sullivan, and it’s quite conceivable that their critique will pick up support alongside other right-wing hobbyhorses.
That the problem of defamation has been roundly ignored is curious in light of the deeply problematic character of discourse online—rule-free, unfair, inclined to be nasty, unencumbered by fact, sometimes merciless. There is no consistency or proportionality to the justice that’s meted out, little reflection, no guidelines when it comes to deciding which wrongs merit momentary shame (the dentist who killed Cecil the lion), which end careers (the white Central Park dog walker who tried to sic police on the Black bird fancier), which are untrue, and which are little more than cruel verbal attack stoked by misogyny or race hate. Then there’s a special class of viciousness directed at professional journalists, particularly women and even more particularly women of color, who draw grotesque vilification and incendiary threats of violence to themselves and even their families. Admittedly, I’m considering defamation more broadly than the law does, in that I include insulting characterizations and harsh abuse that may not contain falsity. But in scale and velocity, it still constitutes a profound cultural dysfunction and a source of unrequited harm that needs to be confronted.
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November 23, 2020
Dear Berkeley Journalism Community, My name is Geeta Anand, and as the new dean of Berkeley Journalism, this is my first quarterly note to you, our devoted community of friends,…