Revenge is a dish best served… on social media?


Author: Teresa Cullen


Teresa Cullen, Partner, Fladgate LLP (tcullen@fladgate.com)


 

Social media affect nearly every aspect of our lives.

Their power reaches throughout the generations, from bullying at school to body shaming and the leaking of information as we progress into adulthood. Latterly, we have seen a rise in revenge attacks, no longer carried out by “poison pen” letters, or old fashioned acts of revenge; remember the scorned ex-wife who followed the milkman, depositing a bottle of wine from her ex-beloved’s wine cellar with each bottle of milk on the milk round, or the betrayed wife who took her revenge by cutting out the left sleeve of every jacket of her husband’s suits and shirts.  These days an embittered ex is far more likely to turn to social media and even to “revenge porn”.  Whilst the odd comment to a friend may be no more than the modern day equivalent of gossiping over a cup of tea or a glass of wine in the Victorian era, the use of social media as a tool of revenge can have its dangers.

Comments on social media, including #(foul name) wastrel and scoundrel, get shared and passed on to a far wider audience than hitherto.  Similarly, fake comments and reviews on Google and other review sites can seriously damage a business; what angry exes often forget is that, whilst the mode of communication is new, the effect of such communication is not, and can often damage the business (and hence the income stream), quite apart from the emotional or distress suffered.

Take for example the case of a vengeful ex posting on a Twitter account accusing her ex of buying diamond rings for his new girlfriend whilst allowing their children to go school without new shoes. Bad enough that friends and relatives within the immediate circle of social media read that, but what happens when it moves to the next level, and those posts are re-posted, shared, re-tweeted or, worse, even specifically directed to the ex’s employer?

In June one particularly spiteful, spurned work colleague, according to the press, was jailed for 16 weeks and ordered to pay £5,000 compensation to his victim. When the young female intern spurned his advances he maintained a campaign against her including posting pictures of her face (from her social media accounts) and manipulating and Photoshopping them alongside pornographic images. He finished by notifying the company’s HR department of “her” online activity to prevent her gaining a permanent job there. The Judge, in sentencing him, commented: “This is a 21st century sort of revenge in that you invoked the powers of the internet. She will live for evermore with the fear that someone will google her name and some ghastly website will come up”. Apparently he is now back home in Italy, living with his parents, unemployed and with no money. Justin Timberlake’s revenge song “What goes around comes around” springs to mind. Revenge may indeed be a dish served cold but should not be served on social media.

The angry exes render themselves liable either to legal action by the police as a result of “malicious communication” or harassment if there has been a course of conduct, or to be subject to a Non-Molestation Application in the Family Court where the parties are “connected”.

This is before you even consider that social media “shaming” and abuse may well amount to defamation, a civil claim, not reliant upon any degree of proximity or relationship between the parties. To make a statement that is untrue but causes or is likely to cause serious harm to a person’s reputation renders the angry ex liable to a claim in damages.  The same is true if such a statement is made in respect of a business and the serious harm causes or is likely to cause serious financial loss.

There is also the criminal offence of disclosing private sexual images, commonly known as “revenge porn”, which was introduced in 2015.

New sentencing guidelines for this offence will be used in Courts from 1 October 2018, ensuring that the sentence imposed on the wrongdoer adequately reflects the seriousness of the offence; perhaps a sign that this sort of offence is being taken more seriously. The nature of these sorts of offence, however, means that it is often very hard to put the genie back into the bottle.

The old saying “Sticks and stones may break my bones but words can never hurt me” may no longer be true when those words can be re-posted and shared with a global audience including the CEO of the company for which the unlucky ex works, school teachers at his children’s school, personal trainers at his gym, drinking buddies, investors. The damage can be cataclysmic, but so can the remedies. The Courts will not hesitate, in appropriate cases, to put the full sanction of the law behind an injunction to prevent such conduct continuing, including criminal proceedings and, as we saw earlier this week, imprisonment.

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