Social media has made defamation and doxing — publicizing personal information, often with a malicious intent — even easier, as a Michigan man discovered after being misidentified as the driver in the car attack at the Aug. 12, 2017, white supremacist rally in Charlottesville.
Soon after James Alex Fields Jr., of Maumee, Ohio, drove his Dodge Challenger into a crowd of counter-protesters, killing Heather Heyer and injuring dozens of others, two far-right blogs began circulating incorrect information about who they thought was the driver.
GotNews claimed that the Michigan man owned the vehicle and had driven into the crowd, describing him as a “domestic terrorist” and an “anti-Trump, open borders druggie.” Similarly, the blog Freedom Daily alleged that the media had incorrectly identified the driver and described the Michigan man as a member of the Democratic Party and an “Antifa terrorist.”
Other blogs and social media users began to spread the accusation, furthering the false claims and posting the Michigan man’s personal information, including his address.
In truth, the man these outlets had misidentified as the driver had never even owned the Dodge Challenger — it had belonged to his father years prior and had been sold several times before it came into Fields’ possession.
However, the damage was done, and in February 2018, the Michigan man and his father sued 22 entities and individuals in a federal court in Michigan for defamation, seeking undisclosed damages.
Andrew Sommerman, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, said in an interview that his clients’ lives had been upended by the false claims made in the wake of the Unite the Right rally.
“My client has been subjected to threats on his life and has these false claims permanently attached to his name,” he said.
Though the complaint argues in part that some of the defendants chose to attack the plaintiffs because of their political views, Sommerman said the case isn’t about political motivations. His younger client has faced financial struggles as a result of the defamation, he said.
In addition to the far-right outlets and blogs, more than a dozen individuals also were named as defendants. Scattered throughout the country, many of these defendants unsuccessfully sought to be dismissed from the case.
A few, including Lita Coulthart-Villanueva, are now in the process of settling outside of court. Though she said she could not disclose the particulars of the settlement, Coulthart-Villanueva said she believes her settlement will be lower than many of the defendants because of her limited financial means.
“As a disabled woman living mostly off of Social Security payments, I really don’t have much money,” she said. “I made a mistake, and now I’m paying for it.”
During the social media firestorm following the Unite the Right car attack, Coulthart-Villanueva said she mistook one of the articles falsely identifying one of the plaintiffs as the driver as factual and posted his address and other identifying information to her Twitter account.
“It looked professional, had a bold headline and all that, and the first body of the article said ‘killer confirmed,’” she said. “I copied the information and shared it; didn’t even finish reading the article.”
After she learned of her mistake, Coulthart-Villanueva said she deleted the post, but by that point, the damage was done and a federal judge later ruled she was still liable.
William Oglesby, an associate professor at Virginia Commonwealth University’s Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture, said that repeating a defamatory message online is the equivalent of repeating such a message verbally in any other type of forum.
“Every person who repeats a defamation is committing the same offense,” he said. “Quick retraction doesn’t remove culpability, but it can mitigate damage.”
Due to free-speech concerns, courts can be hesitant to rule too broadly in cases surrounding major breaking news events, such as the Unite the Right rally, Oglesby said.
“Courts are in a tough position because when it comes to big news events,” he said, “they want to encourage widespread discussion of it, while still protecting people from defamation. But if it’s too easy to defame someone, then it can have a chilling effect.”
Daniel Powell, an attorney for Minc Law who specializes in internet defamation litigation, said social media defamation cases differ from their print counterparts.
Section 230 of the 1996 Communications Decency Act provides immunity from liability to providers for user-generated clients, essentially shielding entities like Twitter from being roped into a defamation suit like a newspaper publisher would, Powell said.
Though internet defamation cases are a “new frontier,” Powell said judges are starting to recognize how damaging defamation on social media and the internet can be, especially when compared with print.
“Years ago, an article about a drunk driving arrest could appear in a newspaper and then would be in a wastebasket in a couple days,” he said. “Nowadays, it’s No. 1 or 2 when you Google someone’s name. It can act as a digital scarlet letter.”