Business Technology

Tuesday 28 January 2020

I was defamed on Facebook

Celine Naughton

The social networking site can be home to anonymous users with bad intentions, writes Celine Naughton

Facebook is not always a social network. In fact, I found it to be positively anti-social. Let me explain.

A large part of my work is as a feature writer and last August I discovered that a page called "Celine Naughton -- Ireland's Worst Journalist" had been created on Facebook.

Now I may not be a Pulitzer Prize-winner, but Ireland's worst I ain't. Not surprisingly, I was rather upset, not only that somebody -- anonymously, of course (surprise!) -- should post a page with such a nasty, screaming headline, but, to add insult to injury, it had been picked up by the search engine Google.

This meant that any time my name was keyed into Google, a list of results all repeated the same tagline: "Ireland's Worst Journalist."

I was also angry. Having attended various libel seminars in the course of my 30 years as a journalist, I know the principles of defamation law. Defamation is a false attack on a person's good name. I have always taken great care to adhere to the rules of libel law both as a writer and as an editor checking other journalists' work, but these rules don't appear to apply to the internet.

It may seem like the internet has been with us forever, but it's still a relatively new medium and the law is playing catch-up with the speed and global spread of communication it facilitates.

I reported the page to Facebook online and waited a week in the hope it would be removed, but there was no response.

I tried unsuccessfully to contact the organisation. Facebook has an office in Dublin, but there is no listing of an address or telephone number. I searched online and found a number on a chat site, so I rang and spoke to a woman who said she works for a property management company in the building where Facebook is located.

She said she was not permitted to put any caller through to Facebook staff or give any direct telephone number for them, but she would pass my details to Facebook staff upstairs. Again, I received no response.

By now, it was September and I was growing more outraged. Not only did Facebook facilitate an anonymous attack on my reputation, the organisation itself was hiding behind a wall of anonymity to avoid direct contact with the public. This felt like a virtual Wild West, a lawless zone in which the rules were anybody's guess.

My only option was to turn to my solicitor for help. He found an address for Facebook at Hanover Reach in Dublin and sent a robust letter seeking the immediate removal of the offending page and advised if this did not happen, he would take further action on my behalf.

Throughout the process I didn't allow myself to speculate on the identity of the person who defamed me because that would be futile. I reported the incident to the Office of the Data Protection Commissioner (ODPC) who informed me that under data protection law, it would not be possible for Facebook in the absence of a court order to reveal the identity of the person who posted the fake profile.

To satisfy my curiosity, I would like to know who it was, but I'm not going to waste my time and energy pondering the matter.

When a journalist libels a person, in the vast majority of cases it is due to a simple error, human or otherwise, and that journalist and the newspaper, magazine or journal in which it appeared are held to account and issue a full apology.

Online defamation, however, can be of a malicious nature, deliberately intended to offend, while the perpetrator can remain unknown.

Finally, on October 3, I found the page had been removed and, over time, it stopped appearing on Google. That meant that for over two months, this defamation had lingered online for the entire global community to view with each passing day until, at a leisurely pace, with no sense of urgency and only in response to an official legal complaint was it taken down. There was no apology.

Morally and ethically, I think there should be individual and collective responsibility and accountability in the online community just as in the real physical world.

But having had a peek at the ugly face of Facebook, I suspect those ideals are a long way off.

Although I contacted Facebook when I was writing this article, the company had no comment to make.

Irish Independent

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