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Tips for Avoiding Defamation and Libel as a Web Publisher

Avoiding defamation and libel is crucial for web publishers. Learn key tips to protect your content and reputation from costly lawsuits in our latest article.

Disclaimer: This article is for informational purposes only, and isn’t meant to be taken as legal advice. Since laws can vary by region and industry anyway, it’s best to consult a legal professional for their expertise on this subject.

As a web publisher, you’re likely putting out a fair amount of content on blogs, websites, and/or social media platforms on a regular basis. After all, if you’re going to stay top of mind with your audience and stand out from the competition, you’ve got to put in the work! But if you’re not taking steps to avoid defamation and libel in this online content, then all of your hard work could get you into trouble.

And not just the “slap on the wrist” kind of trouble either. Even if you accidentally make false statements against an individual, group, or business that could damage their reputation, you could open yourself up to a serious, time-consuming, and costly lawsuit. In fact, one online defamation case resulted in a $38 million payout!

Now, don’t panic just yet! It’s a big number, yes, but fortunately, preventing these types of lawsuits is often easier than trying to fight them in court. So, in this article, we’re going to give you some tips for avoiding defamation and libel as a web publisher.

1. Clearly State When Something Is an Opinion vs a Fact

First things first: sharing an opinion about someone or something typically doesn’t count as defamation. It doesn’t matter of its slander (verbal defamation) or libel (written defamation). But sometimes, just starting a statement with “I believe…” or “In my opinion…” isn’t enough. You need to make sure that you’re not implying any false, underlying facts.

For example, consider the following two sentences:

  • I believe that John stole Taylor’s wallet.
  • The last time that I saw John, he was looking through Taylor’s purse before she reported her wallet missing. So, I think that he stole Taylor’s wallet.

See the difference? Since you’re not sharing the reasons for accusing John in the first statement, readers may assume that your opinion may be based on unstated, defamatory facts. In the second statement, though, you’re stating the truth about what you’re basing your opinion on: that he was looking through her purse before the wallet went missing. A little context can go a long way.

Under these circumstances, it would be reasonable for you and your readers to believe that John stole Taylor’s wallet. But if your reasoning turned out to be false (you didn’t, in fact, witness him going through her purse before it was stolen), then the statement could be considered defamatory.

2. Verify and Cite Your Sources

As a web publisher, you may go out of your way to ensure that you’re providing your audience with high-quality content. But that doesn’t mean that everyone else does.

Some people are just churning out content to get more clicks, shares, and traffic, without a second thought as to how accurate that content actually is. So, as a general rule of thumb, the more scandalous and controversial a news item may be, the more research you should do before publishing it to a website.

But this doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t still do your due diligence on more mundane topics too, though. You should always look into the accuracy, reliability, and credibility of your sources, whether they’re talking about a local man having a problem with his neighbor or a political figure calling someone a liar on social media

If they check out, then use the information and credit them accordingly. If not, then see if you can find a reliable source covering the same topic, or avoid using it altogether to avoid any potential claims of defamation.

3. Don’t Republish Someone Else’s Defamatory Statements

Now, you may think that you can get around any libel accusations yourself if you’re crediting and reposting someone else’s defamatory statement. But generally speaking, you could be held responsible for republishing the content if you knew or had reason to believe it was defamatory.

It’s often not enough to say that you were just repeating what someone else wrote and that you weren’t sure of the truth yourself  - that defence typically won’t hold up in court. In some cases, you may be protected if you present the information in an unbiased manner and cite the source, but there’s no guarantees here.

There is some good news here, though. According to the Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, though, media organizations are not held responsible for user comments on their websites, as long as they did not encourage or create them. So, if a user drops libelous content on a blog post on your website, you shouldn’t be held accountable.

4. Check AI-Generated Content Closely

With artificial intelligence-based writing tools and large language models like ChatGPT making content creation easier than ever, you may find yourself publishing some AI-generated content from time to time. So, you may be wondering: can AI be sued for defamation? Or will I be blamed for any AI-created defamatory statements that I publish?

Well, since the technology is still so new, the laws in this area are murky at best. But this isn’t stopping people from trying to hold the creators of AI tools accountable.

Take the case of Mark Walters vs OpenAI. The radio host found that ChatGPT was falsely accusing him of embezzlement, and sued its creator, OpenAI, for defamation. This isn’t the first time AI hallucinations like this have caused serious problems, but whether OpenAI will be held liable remains to be seen.

So, until the laws become more clear regarding AI-generated libel, the best thing you can do is protect yourself. For example, if you’re receiving and publishing content from other writers, then the first step would be to run it through an AI content checker to see if any of it has been generated by ChatGPT or any other AI writing tool. 

If it has, you should then carefully check the highlighted sections for any false, defamatory statements. You may even consider using a fact checker to help you out.

While it’s true that individuals are currently going after the creator of these generative AI products, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

5. Investigate and Correct Mistakes as Needed

Finally, whether someone points out a potentially defamatory statement to you or you find one yourself, it’s at least worth an investigation. You should look into the claim as soon as possible, and, if you find that it has merit, update and correct your mistake. It’s going to take a little extra work, sure, but it could save you from going to court.

In fact, in some jurisdictions, you can protect yourself in an online defamation lawsuit if you retract the supposedly defamatory statement in question. For example, if the plaintiff doesn’t request a retraction or requests and receives one, then they can only get “special damages” related to the statement. This is usually in the form of something like lost wages instead of more serious damages.

Start Taking Steps to Avoid Defamation and Libel Today

If you’re going to make your mark as a web publisher, then you can’t afford to be sidelined by defamation and libel accusations. Fortunately, by clearly distinguishing between opinions and facts, verifying and citing sources, avoiding the republication of potentially defamatory content, carefully fact-checking AI content, and publishing retractions as needed, you should be able to protect yourself.

So, start implementing some of these tips for avoiding defamation and libel as a web publisher today, and help keep your career lawsuit-free!

Jess Sawyer

Jess Sawyer is a seasoned writer and content marketing expert with a passion for crafting engaging and SEO-optimized content. With several years of experience in the digital marketing, Jess has honed her skills in creating content that not only captivates audiences but also ranks high on search engine results.

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