One New Message: “You’re Going to Court!”

Social media has created new opportunities for libel, harassment, and even serious crimes.

Photo by Dennis Skley (Flickr)

This article is the second in a two-part series on social media-based cyber crimes. You can read Part One here.

The growth of social media over the past decade has led to an increase in defamation and harassment lawsuits.  In 2014, rocker Courtney Love was sued by her former attorney Rhonda Holmes for a statement Love made on Twitter.  The jury was not able to find any evidence that Love knew the statement she made was false, and she won the case.  This case has been regarded as the first lawsuit where a Tweet has been the subject of a libel suit.

Laws regarding cyberbullying and stalking have been enacted across the country, many sparked by a rash of suicides attributed to online harassment.  In 2006, teenager Megan Meier committed suicide due to what her parents believed was the result of an internet hoax.  Meier’s friend and the friend’s mother, Lori Drew, had created an online persona to harass Meier.  Meier believed she was talking to a teenage boy named Josh Evans, but in reality was chatting with Drew and Drew’s daughter.  When the online relationship failed, Meier committed suicide, and Drew was thrown into the national spotlight.  Drew was quickly doxed: her home address, phone number, and workplace were posted online.  She changed her cell phone number due to numerous harassing phone calls throughout the day and night.  Drew was not held accountable in court for what she allegedly did to Meier, but suffered a backlash so strong that her life was forever changed.

Recently, the phenomenon of “swatting” has gained national attention.  Swatting occurs when law enforcement is called to a person’s house in response to a falsely reported crime.  Originally, celebrities such as Ashton Kutcher found themselves to be the victims of swatting, but the trend quickly spread to members of the general public.  One might be swatted as a prank or as revenge for video game or online activity.

Those accused of swatting could be tried in a federal court.  In July 2014, Jason Neff pled guilty to aiding and abetting a conspiracy to use access devices to modify telecommunications instruments, among other charges, in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Texas.  The Nebraska native had a long history of cyber crimes and was a member of a cyber gang that would swat homes in Texas.  Neff and his co-conspirators are serving time in federal prison for the pranks.

Doxing and swatting are frightening concepts, and realistically could happen to anyone.  The most obvious way to avoid becoming a victim of either is to completely forgo all online activity.  However, because this is unrealistic in a world powered by the internet, those who fear online backlash can still mitigate the risk of being doxed.  First, avoid posting anything online that could be viewed as controversial, including political or religious opinions.  Essentially, this will minimize the chance of upsetting someone who could potentially seek revenge.  Second, keep as much personal information as possible off the internet, such as home addresses and phone numbers.  Although much of this information is public record and is readily available on government sites, removing it from personal social media sites will make a doxer’s mission more difficult.

If you find yourself in a situation where you have actually been doxed or someone has defamed you on the internet, you may have legal remedies.  Any false information posted about you could be actionable, and you might have a case for slander or libel.  Furthermore, if someone is repeatedly sending you messages via an electronic medium, you might have a harassment case.  Finally, if you find that your credit card information or social security number have been put to use without your authorization, the offender may be liable for identity theft.

Ultimately, anything you personally publish on the internet is fair game. Although it is not illegal for someone to search your name and compile a database of your Tweets, Facebook posts, or blogs, it is illegal for them to repeatedly harass you.  Be mindful of what you share and who you share it with, and your chances of ever being doxed are slim.

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About Paige Miles Feldmann, Managing Editor (20 Articles)
Paige Miles Feldmann is a 2016 graduate and served as the Managing Editor of the Campbell Law Observer for the 2015-2016 academic year. Originally from Erie, Pennsylvania, she graduated from Penn State with a finance degree. Following her first year of law school, she interned with the Clerk of Superior Court for Chatham County, the Wake County Family Court, and the Wake County Public Defender. She also competed on a Campbell Law Trial Team in the Buffalo-Niagara Mock Trial Competition. Paige worked with the Wake County District Attorney as an intern in the misdemeanor section during her third year.
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