Just because online defamation is common doesn’t mean it can’t be fought.
In a movie with one of the longest film titles of all time (“Who Is Harry Kellerman and Why Is He Saying Those Terrible Things About Me?”), Dustin Hoffman’s father tells him, “Life is like an appetizer; it’s here, it’s gone.” Life is brief, and when it’s over all that’s left is your legacy. Your legacy is affected by not only how you conduct yourself during your fleeting time on this planet, but also by what others say about you during that time.
The Internet represents a great achievement for free speech, but some people think that they can type anything they want about someone with no repercussions. I think it’s part of the talk-radioization of America and the general decline of civility when anyone with a gripe can phone in and get something off their chest. But talk radio has clogged lines; not Internet forums, where it seems freedom of expression also can mean freedom to defame while expecting no consequences. Well, there are consequences, but it’s up to you to make sure they’re delivered.
Recently, I was searching for genealogical records and came upon a family name discussion group. I was thrilled to find people with my surname exchanging information on their ancestors. It was all good except one message that (somewhat) criticized my Web site and, more important, said what I felt were unnecessarily cruel things about one of the subjects of one of the portraits–not a family member–that was displayed on the site. What followed in trying to get that message removed was instructional.
First, although it seems obvious, write an e-mail to the poster, calmly and politely asking them to delete their message. Wait 24-48 hours to see what happens and if the message remains, complain loud and long to every e-mail address you can find on the forum, starting with the administrator and webmaster. Next, make paper copies of every message you sent as well as screen captures of the forum itself. And then put all this stuff in a folder. Write notes about what dates, you sent e-mail and keep copies of each one too. This will come in handy if you decide to take legal action later on. Next, keep on top of the situation. Don’t wait more than another 48 hours to recontact the same e-mail addresses if nobody responds. If you still have no satisfaction, kick it up a notch and look to who is behind the forum. In my case it was a major communications company; within 48 hours of my second contact and following all of these suggestions, the message was gone. But they were decidedly not polite about it and acted if it was my problem and not theirs.
It’s different with smaller sites and forums. In talking with people who host such forums, most of them told me, off the record, that unlike most large companies who use disclaimers to police their forums, they actively look to avoid problems. They have several volunteer administrators to make sure that the forum’s rules are followed, as well to as look for potential legal problems. Since they don’t have a legal department and can’t afford to be sued, small independent forums seem more diligent than corporate entities such as the one sponsoring the genealogy forum that triggered this rant.
While the message may be deleted, as it is in most cases of this kind, the damage it created may remain. In that case, your only solution is to hire an attorney and sue. But most of us can’t afford such a luxury, and must settle for just standing up for ourselves.
Joe Farace is a writer/photographer and Contributing Editor to ComputerUser and author of 1,300 magazines articles and 23 books.