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This era of social media is bringing about a new genre of libel litigation — one where an individual says something, then is corrected, and then goes to court with bruised reputation. The latest complaint comes from John Stossel, the veteran TV journalist who on Wednesday sued Facebook in California federal court over what was affixed to his post about 2020 California forest fires and their cause.
“This case presents a simple question: do Facebook and its vendors defame a user who posts factually accurate content, when they publicly announce that the content failed a ‘fact-check’ and is ‘partly false,’ and by attributing to the user a false claim that he never made?” Stossel’s complaint asks. “The answer, of course, is yes.”
According to Stossel’s complaint (read here), he published on Facebook a video titled “Government Fueled Fires,” where he took on “sensational media reporting about a so-called ‘climate apocalypse,’ and explored a scientific hypothesis … that while climate change undoubtedly contributes to forest fires, it was not the primary cause of the 2020 California fires.”
Sossel targeted forest management.
After posting the video, he says Facebook placed a label near his video that stated, “Missing Context. Independent fact-checkers say this information could mislead people.” Further information told readers: “Claim — ‘forest fires are caused by poor management. Not by climate change.’ Verdict: misleading.”
Stossel says he never made that specific claim, that it was falsely attributed to him, and that Facebook’s actions curtailed his viewership and caused immediate and irreparable harm to his reputation.
“We believe this case is without merit and we will defend ourselves vigorously against the allegations,” responds a Facebook spokesperson.
Some hints about how Stossel’s suit might play out come from a court decision in Delaware in June. These fact-checking suits are relatively novel, but Stossel is not the first to present a defamation claim prompted by sensitivity about misinformation in the social media sphere.
In the earlier case, conservative political commentator Candace Owens also targeted fact-checking on Facebook, although her suit named the independent fact-checkers at Lead Stories and USA Today as the defendants for interjecting after she claimed the methods that U.S. government officials used for counting COVID-19 deaths overstated the peril and scope of the pandemic. Owens was hit with warning labels for “false” content.
Unfortunately for Owens, court concluded that she couldn’t demonstrate that the word “false” was an “untrue statement under the reasonable conceivability standard.” Further, while she objected to being slapped with a “hoax alert,” the court saw it as using “loose, figurative” language. The court added that she hadn’t shown that any false statements were made with actual malice. (Here’s the full opinion.)
In other words, to the question of whether a user was defamed through the announcement that content failed a “fact-check,” this Delaware court didn’t see a problem.
The Stossel case certainly has differences, though he’ll likewise wrestle with interpretation and opinion, not to mention libel standards for public figures and perhaps Section 230 of the CDA.
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