As we become more interconnected through the internet and social media, we become much more vulnerable to becoming victims of cyberbullying and online defamation. Being deemed liable for a seemingly harmless comment that you have made online is also more likely than you think.
Lawyers Pratap Kishan (Director, Ho Wong Law Practice LLC), Ushan Premaratne (Senior Associate, Withers KhattarWong) and Jeshua Shashedaran (Lawyer, Netto & Magin LLC) answered questions and shared advice on how to stop cyberbullying and online defamation during a panel discussion co-organized with partners Collision 8, Ministry of Funny and the Singapore Kindness Movement.
Questions Asked (read on to see answers)
- Understanding cyberbullying and online defamation
- How can we define cyberbullying?
- Who are the typical victims of cyberbullying?
- Are there instances when an innocent comment is misconstrued as cyberbullying?
- How can we tell when we are crossing the line into cyberbullying or defaming someone else?
- Will sharing a post that pokes fun at someone make you as guilty of cyberbullying as the original poster?
- Advice for businesses
- What can organizations and businesses do if they have been defamed online?
- How should businesses respond to unsubstantiated and inaccurate online reviews from customers?
- How can business owners deal with customers who threaten to post defamatory comments online about their business in order to get a refund?
- Advice for individuals
- How can individuals and businesses show losses due to online defamation in order to claim damages?
- What can individuals do to repair their reputation if they have been cyberbullied or defamed online?
Understanding cyberbullying and online defamation
How can we define cyberbullying?
Pratap: There actually is no legal definition of cyberbullying.
Ushan: I think there will not be much of a difference in terms of how the law treats bullying online and bullying offline. But I think what we’re looking at when we look at bullying is:
Does it amount to harassment?
Does it amount to someone being distressed or alarmed?
Is someone afraid of violence or some kind of threat to their own lives?
There’s also the issue of whether it’s intentional or unintentional. But ultimately, I think it’s best to provide examples of cyberbullying. One example would be if after you’ve posted a picture of you with your friends online, someone starts posting “I hate your face, I’m going to find you and kill you” and sharing that post where you can see it, causing you to feel threatened.
If you feel that your life is at risk as a result, that could be quite a clear-cut situation of cyberbullying.
Jeshua: To me, cyberbullying is simply going on a platform and causing alarm and distress through harassing other individuals. I think it comes in varied forms and that you can even cyberbully by sending emails repeatedly (for eg: sending emails repeatedly about the way this particular person looks or professing your one-sided love to this employee/colleague).
Who are the typical victims of cyberbullying?
Jeshua: You’d be surprised. You may think that children are most susceptible to it, but adults are just as susceptible to being cyberbullied.
I think that anyone can be bullied even if you are a 40-year-old lady. Like that lady who was collecting oil as her livelihood. It’s actually a legitimate livelihood, but people posted online that she was from mainland China and was trying to use whatever oil she can get to cook for others. The fear-mongering got virulent and she eventually lost her job, showing that anyone can be a target of cyberbullying.
Are there instances when an innocent comment is misconstrued as cyberbullying?
Pratap: To identify instances of cyberbullying, we have to look at how it is perceived by the victim. If you are the person making those comments, my only advice is be careful of what you say online.
It’s not a question of distinguishing between what you are doing is bullying or not, but rather how your actions will be perceived.
For example, if you post a picture of your friend and adds as a caption “He looks funny,” your innocent statement of him looking funny can be taken out of context. You’re entitled to say that because there’s nothing wrong with that statement, but your friend may tell you offline that it is not nice to say something like that online because nowadays, you don’t know who may read your comment.
I can’t give you a clear definition of cyberbullying because it depends on:
- How the subject of your comment perceives it
- Who the target audience is
And in this Internet age, the target audience is the world, isn’t it?
Ushan: It really depends on perception. And I think that when you post something online, it’s difficult in most cases to guess how the other person will perceive it. You don’t know the mental state of that person and you don’t know what’s happening in that person’s life. Maybe you caught them at a time when your few words will affect them very intensely.
Just choose your words carefully when you make statements online, because it’s impossible for you to stop your friends from sharing it or to stop someone from taking a screenshot once you have posted your statement online.
How can we tell when we are crossing the line into cyberbullying or defaming someone else?
Pratap: When you make comments, you have to be careful in making responsible comments.
Let’s say if you were to go to a restaurant and get bad customer service, just state it as a matter of fact and that it is your personal experience. Do not add colour to your comments.
When you add colour, you go one step further from simply saying “The service was poor” to also adding for example, “The restaurant should close down. Everyone should get together and show our support to close down this restaurant.” Then obviously this is where you have crossed the line.
You have crossed the line from making a comment about your personal experience to now garnering support for your current online attempt to close the restaurant down. I don’t think that’s fair and that’s where you have to draw the line.
Will sharing a post that pokes fun at someone make you as guilty of cyberbullying as the original poster?
Ushan: If you have republished something that is defamatory, then you are as liable as the person who initially posted it. The only difference will be in how the court assesses whether you are as guilty as the original poster when determining the amount of damages to be paid. But in terms of liability, you are unfortunately as liable as the person who had first published the defamatory post.
Jeshua: The protection order under the Protection from Harassment Act (POHA) would bind everyone from posting it. So no one can post that particular post which would be deemed as harassing in nature.
Advice for businesses
What can organizations and businesses do if they have been defamed online?
Ushan: Businesses, specially nowadays, rely on social media quite a bit. As people know that social media is very important for businesses, they use that as a leverage to get what they want.
It’s crucial for businesses to respond with a balanced plan for reputation management. The good thing about the individuals behind online defamation is that they want attention. To some extent, it is useful to engage them in addition to engaging with the forums which these individuals have been posting in. For example, you can communicate with TripAdvisor and tell them the true facts so that the reviews with the defamatory comments can be taken down.
How should businesses respond to unsubstantiated and inaccurate online reviews from customers?
Ushan: My advice to you is to firstly be very polite and thank the reviewer for their review in order to set the right tone and voice. You can see this being done by the more reputable hotels and restaurants on TripAdvisor.
By responding to the review, you put forward your service standards. And after someone else reads the obviously biased review, they can next read your more balanced comment. Online readers can thus ascertain who is right and who is wrong.
You shouldn’t respond by calling the reviewer a liar, because online readers will think that you’re being defensive and that you have something to hide.
Jeshua: You can see on business websites that some businesses respond to comments in a very diplomatic and service-oriented style. I think that’s good because you’re showing a reader who has never used your service before that you actually bother to respond and address the reviewer’s concerns in a diplomatic way.
Instead of engaging in a bitter argument for everyone to see, you can ask to take the discussion to private messaging.
How can business owners deal with customers who threaten to post defamatory comments online about their business in order to get a refund?
Pratap: If you know which customer it is, you can curb the problem. Sometimes you can do so by sending a letter to the customer. You can take the first step to consult a lawyer and then send a letter of demand to the customer asking them to withdraw their comment. There are ways to send the letter by electronic means as well.
Advice for individuals
How can individuals and businesses show losses due to online defamation in order to claim damages?
Jeshua: Basically, you have to quantify your losses if you are a business. If there’s a dip in profits due to online defamation, you need to show the dip.
It’s not sufficient to merely ask for damages after proving that the comments made were defamatory. We have to be able to have some basis to quantify the damages.
For an individual, their loss is determined by the reach of the defamatory comment. If a defamatory comment was posted on Facebook, the number of people who have viewed it and who are the people who have seen it will be analysed and argued in court to show that damages should be increased or decreased.
It’s very fact-centric. For example, in the case of a Facebook comment posted by an employee about the employer, the reach of the comment would be the number of people from the same company in the commenter’s Facebook friends list.
What can individuals do to repair their reputation if they have been cyberbullied or defamed online?
Jeshua: There are a number of self-help remedies available under the POHA. An individual will be able to obtain a protection order and the order can be used to direct websites to remove any harassing or defamatory online posts.
If the individual can prove on a prima facie level that a false statement was said about them, the court can also direct websites to post a corrected statement or to remove the false statement completely.
Have more questions on cyberbullying and online defamation for the lawyers?
If you would like to seek legal advice on protecting yourself from cyberbullying and online defamation, you can do so by booking a Quick Consult with Pratap Kishan or Jeshua Shashedaran. When you get an AsiaLawNetwork Quick Consult, Pratap or Jeshua will call back within 48 hours for a transparent fixed fee starting at S$49 to answer your questions and give you legal guidance on your potential next steps.
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This article does not constitute legal advice or a legal opinion on any matter discussed and, accordingly, it should not be relied upon. It should not be regarded as a comprehensive statement of the law and practice in this area. If you require any advice or information, please speak to practicing lawyer in your jurisdiction. No individual who is a member, partner, shareholder or consultant of, in or to any constituent part of Interstellar Group Pte. Ltd. accepts or assumes responsibility, or has any liability, to any person in respect of this article.