FacebookOn 6 February 2013, in the High Court in Belfast, Mr Justice McCloskey awarded libel damages against an unidentified anonymous individual who abused two directors and a member of staff at a Belfast company.  The plaintiffs’ claim against Facebook Ireland Limited was dismissed.

The claims were issued by the company, two directors and a member of staff after false and abusive messages and information relating to them were posted on Facebook in an online campaing which last for months.  The unidentified poster of the material used two separate pseudonyms.

The second, unidentified, defendant did not appear.  But the judge held that the posts had been defamatory. He said that the second defendant was a “troll”, “hiding behind a mask”.

“As this case demonstrated, the laws through the courts penetrates the shields of anonymity and concealment .. . as this case demonstrates on procedural issues our legal system in the modern era adopts a robust and realistic approach. As a result the defendant’s attempts at concealment and harassment have been thwarted.”

He found that libellous postings on Facebook specifically identified at least two of the plaintiffs, while other comments would lead others to identify them through reference and implication.

The defendant’s statements, which are both words and images, took the form of a series of gratuitous and malicious slurs against the character and reputation of the plaintiffs,”

He said that there must be consequences for abuse of social media.

“The courts in Northern Ireland have demonstrated their availability and willingness to protect the interests of those whose legal rights are infringed by the cowardly and faceless perpetrators of this evil”.

He awarded £20,000 damages to the plaintiff who suffered the most distress and anxiety. The two others were awarded £10,000 and £5,000. The defendant must also pay legal costs if they are ever identified.

The judge added that the case was part of a “disturbing” growing trend in similar litigation.

“It’s indisputable that social networking sites can be a force for good in society, a truly positive and valuable mechanism.  However, they are becoming increasingly misused as a medium by which to threaten, abuse, harass, intimidate and defame members of society.  The solution for this grave mischief is far from clear and lies well beyond the powers of this court. Self-regulation or statutory regulation may well be necessary.”

The plaintiffs were granted anonymity on the basis that any disclosure would only draw more unwanted public attention.

The identity of the second defendant remains unknown Even though those responsible for posting the comments and images remain unknown, the financial penalty will be enforced should they ever be identified.The firm was granted anonymity on the basis that any disclosure would only draw more unwanted public attention.

There is a post about the case on Kevin Poulter’s blog and and item on the BBC News website.