Defamation in the Age of the Internet

In a way, people now have the most power ever in the history of humanity. Never has a single individual been able to permanently affect how a person or group is perceived, using cheap and easily available tools, like now. Any person with a free blogging account can say anything they want about anyone else, wrap it up in attention-grabbing headlines, and permanently damage that person’s reputation. In fact, the more scandalous what they say is, the more attention it gets, the better their page ranks on Google, and the more money they make.

This works so well because of people’s emotional tendency to be engaged with content of a “scandalous” nature. It is similar to the impulse that makes you want to look at a car accident. Content about “sordid” topics appeals to primitive human feelings. It draws people in, and keeps them hooked, like a drug. The more drugs you give an addict, the more drugs they want. But the drugs hurt them.

Increasingly, the “professional” media rely on this human physiological mechanism for their financial health. Mass media depends on “views” and “clicks” for advertising revenue. If they publish objective, unspun, non-scandalous material, they might lose viewers and readers, and go out of business. They need to “out-scandal” their competitors, to survive. This “race to the bottom” is a recipe for disaster: informing you is less profitable than exploiting your primitive urges. They give you more of what you “want”, even if it’s not good for you. There is little regard for the welfare of the audience, and even less for the welfare of their victims. Official news media and the fake news outlets are the Roman Coliseum of our time.

For all of the above reasons, you could say individuals are also the most dis-empowered we’ve ever been.

As the readers, or audience, we have lost the privilege of having reliable and objective news sources. Now we must do the extra work of carefully analyzing our news and what we read on the Internet, to try to squeeze out a drop of truth from the hard rock of what today passes for information. We must always be on guard for articles and newscasts that have a hidden agenda. Maybe they are trying to inspire us to hate someone, to like someone, to feel like we need something, or to fear a person or group of people.

As the victims of sensationalist publications, and especially in the United States, which is where most of the Western Internet resides, we have almost no rights or ability to protect ourselves. The laws of free speech allow anyone to say anything they want, and the only way to stop them is to prove that they were intentionally lying. This is very difficult or nearly impossible: if you publish something false about me, how can I prove, days or weeks or months later, that you knew that it was false and said it anyway?

The damage is greater if you consider that there are actual Internet archives which keep a copy of everything that’s published on the Internet, forever. Even if I were to succeed in getting you to remove what you published about me, I cannot erase it from the archives. Defamation is unstoppable and permanent.

This is especially sad if we consider why free speech laws were created originally. I am not a legal expert, but my understanding is that free speech guarantees the ability of citizens to publicly criticize their government. Free speech laws are designed to protect citizens and the press from repression from governments that don’t want their policies or actions questioned or discussed. In their most noble form, free speech laws are there to help prevent dictatorships and tyranny. It is the sign of a strong country when conscientious political satire and editorial opinions can be expressed without fear of reprisals.

Unfortunately, in many places, “free speech” is now used to try anyone in the court of public opinion, with no concern for the truth, and with no consequence. Free speech laws are now used as a shield by slanderers and defamers. Murder with words is a crime that pays, and very well.

What can you do about this? And most importantly, what should you do? I do not have the answer to these questions. But I think a good thing would be to stop rewarding sensationalist media with our attention. This is very difficult to do because there are very few alternatives to get our news from.

A more immediate thing you can do, that is entirely in your control, is to think. When you find information on the Internet, always ask yourself “Why is this information being presented in this way?”. Think about how much of what you are reading is opinion and how much is facts. Ask yourself “Is there information that is being left out of this publication? And if so, who does it benefit to leave it out?”.

And perhaps, the most important thing to look out for is whether the material you are reading is designed to inspire in you a certain emotion. Is it written to make you angry against a certain person? Afraid of a certain thing? To feel indignation, which is a form of anger? Many people say that “sex sells”, but I think the statement should be expanded to “sex, fear and anger sell”.

It is the most profitable thing for a publication to inspire you to feel afraid of something. If you feel afraid of X or Y, you will want to know more about it, and you will want to come back to the publication to find out. More hits, more views, more visits, more money for them. But at what price for you?

Now more than ever, don’t be a sheep (or don’t be their monkey). Think for yourself.