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Consequences of Sharing Misinformation

February 13, 2024 (6 min read)
Examples of misinformation spreading have been known to ruin reputations -- or lead to costly lawsuits.

Podcasts, blogs and social media sites make it easy for anyone to share their thoughts—who among us hasn’t sent a hastily-typed missive into the ether for our friends and followers to enjoy? But sharing misinformation on the web, intentionally or not, can have real legal consequences.

Proper research and fact-checking have been a cornerstone of journalism since its inception, but these skills are increasingly essential for content creators in new and emerging media, as well as traditional outlets. Otherwise, you could disseminate false or unverified information, and the repercussions can be brutal—like “getting sued for defamation” brutal.

Here’s what to think about.

Impact of fake news in culture and society

Spotify was hit with a defamation lawsuit in 2021 for its true crime podcast “Son of a Hitman.”  There are hundreds of true crime podcasts and investigative journalists that don’t get sued, so what did Spotify (and host Jason Cavanagh) do wrong? 

It started with the interview of an eyewitness to the assassination of a federal judge. The witness, Dr. Chrysanthe Parker, filed the suit after Cavanagh introduced her as a “very unusual witness” and allegedly cherry-picked clips from her interview to portray her in an unflattering light. In the suit, Parker’s attorneys claimed that “the episode and the podcast as a whole purposely lead the audience to the false conclusion that Dr. Parker, as a young attorney and officer of the court, was either complicit or actively participated in manufacturing evidence to perpetuate an unfair trial on Charles Harrelson” and argued that the portrayal damaged her professional reputation and future job prospects.

Due to Cavanagh’s stilted reporting, the suit claims, “the podcast is much more akin to the reality TV style of Tiger King rather than the journalistic rigor of Serial.” 

Not a good look for the podcast, or for Spotify.

While a federal court eventually dismissed the case, this instance is an important reminder for content creators to avoid violating laws or journalistic standards themselves when discussing crimes.

MORE: Finding the truth amid misinformation

New media and global privacy laws

The rise of new media means that all content creators must be aware of the potential legal ramifications of their content. But because most emerging media platforms are digital, they’re also global--which means it’s extremely important for anyone engaging online to be aware of how their shows, tweets, or videos will be legally evaluated in other countries. Being aware of how libel and defamation are defined (and proven) from country to country is critical.

Liability for public comments varies

You might assume that you can’t be held legally responsible for what random commenters say in response to your posts or stories—and depending on where you live, that assumption could get you in some serious legal hot water.   

If you live in the United States, you enjoy a certain amount of freedom when it comes to expressing your opinions--especially on social media. Not only that, but if you decide to share your personal views about a local news story in a YouTube comments section, the website cannot be held legally responsible for anything false or defamatory you might say (thanks to a provision of the Communications Decency Act of 1996).

In Australia, for example, media companies can be held liable for comments and replies made on their own posts. Just look at the case of Dylan Voller, an Aboriginal-Australian man who came to public attention after being featured in an exposé on the mistreatment of juveniles in the country’s criminal detention system.

Major Australian news outlets shared their own coverage of the investigation on their respective Facebook pages, where users began making disturbing and demonstrably false accusations about Voller.

In response, Voller sued several of these outlets for defamation, and an Australian high court ruled that the media outlets could be held liable for the comments of other users. Plus, the ruling extends that liability for user comments to anyone with a public Facebook page—not just media outlets—so its essential that a company monitor social media comments to avoid these penalties.

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Privacy laws depend on country

Situational awareness and privacy laws in social media also depend on the country. While naming a famous suspect in an alleged crime is commonplace in places like the U.S., the reporting around a UK-based case has been curiously vague. Many social media users have speculated about the identity of the accused, but blogs, podcasts, and other media outlets have withheld the footballer’s name and identifying descriptions for “legal reasons.”

Why are these outlets playing coy? Simple: They know that privacy laws in the U.K. are strict and want to avoid any legal blowback.

“In the United Kingdom, arrested suspects have the right to privacy until the police see fit to charge them. That is because being charged is the point in the legal process when the courts have decided there is enough substance to the allegations to warrant linking someone to them,” writes Luke Brown, a contributor to the website The Athletic. “Anybody who names an individual in relation to a criminal investigation risks breaking the law.”

Social media users who name individuals in their speculation are also at risk, he adds, but traditional AND new media outlets must be particularly careful in their coverage. After all, distributing content on a global scale demands that creators do their research and consider all potential legal ramifications.

Defamation lawsuits

Getting slapped with a defamation lawsuit, doesn’t just deal a blow to your reputation or credibility—it can cost you time and money, too. A big corporation may be able to absorb the cost (not to mention reputational damage)—but that’s not true for most content creators.

While litigation is generally unpredictable and costs vary from country to country, here’s a general idea of what you could expect to pay in fees or damages around the world when faced by a defamation suit:

  • Australia: Case costs can range from $100,000 to well above $300,000.
  • Belgium: The highest amount ever awarded by a Belgian court for moral damages was €600,000.
  • Spain: In 144 civil defamation cases, damage awards ranged from €600 to €125,000.
  • The United States: In contested cases, defendants can expect to spend $30,000 to $60,000 just in legal fees.
  • The U.K.: The current “ceiling” for libel awards is £300,000.

MORE: Why managing your reputational risk is key to your business success

Social media misinformation consequences

Journalists aren’t the only content creators who need to be aware of spreading false information online. Influencers who are building their brands also need to be cognizant of the veracity of what they share online.

Cassie De Pecol, a travel influencer with hundreds of thousands of followers on Instagram and TikTok, became a hot topic when she was announced as the first woman to visit each of the countries in the world. Obviously, this is a huge accomplishment; the problem is, it wasn’t true. 

As Taylor Lorenz, a journalist for The Washington Post, wrote, “The truth is that De Pecol is not the first woman to travel to every country. Nor is she the first woman to travel to every country alone. She is the first, however, to claim it on social media.”

De Pecol obviously wasn’t the first person to exaggerate (or outright misrepresent) her accomplishments online, but she is paying the price—she was sued by Travelers United, a consumer protection group, for allegedly defrauding and misleading investors with “increasingly bold lies” that she parlayed into lucrative sponsorship deals. While De Pecol denies the accusations, she’ll be dealing with the fallout for years to come.

MORE: How to do research for investigative journalism

Combat misinformation with Nexis®

With the number of sources on the internet, it can be easy to share bad information and not even realize you’re doing it. Unfortunately, ignorance is not a good enough defense in a lawsuit—especially when there are tools that can help you fact-check your details in seconds.

Nexis is a comprehensive research tool you can rely on for better story accuracy. In minutes, search premium licensed content, verify facts and meet your deadlines—without compromising the integrity of your work.

Interested in trying it for yourself? Sign up for a 7-day free trial and get started today.