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Friday, February 21, 2014

A Lie Detector for Social Media? Thoughts From a Defamation Perspective

The BBC reports:

A lie detector for social media is being built to try to verify online rumours. 
The system will analyse, in real time, whether a posting online is true. 
. . . 
The system will categorise the sources of information to assess their authority. Categories include news outlets, journalists, experts, eye witnesses, members of the public and bots - accounts that automatically generate social media posts. 
It will also examine accounts for a history or background to try to identify whether the account has been created just to spread rumours. 
Conversations on social networks will be studied to see how they evolve and sources will be checked to see if information can be confirmed or denied.
The article concludes that the system will hopefully be available to journalists after a period of testing.

It would be interesting to see how this would affect defamation lawsuits. Journalists and others who post things on the internet may copy from a source without verifying whether it is reliable. There is a lot of unreliable content out there (for example, I've heard rumors of blogs started by law students), and copying from these sources is as easy as hitting a couple of buttons.

Will journalists and other online writers be held to higher standards in defamation lawsuits if this sort of technology becomes widely available? Under New York Times v. Sullivan, suits arising from statements about public figures will still be subject to an actual malice - or reckless disregard for the truth - standard. This means that plaintiffs need to prove that the defendant published a false statement knowing that the statement was false, or had reason to doubt the statement was false, but published it anyway. In these cases, the lie detector technology may help defendants. If defendants use a social media lie detecting system before making their statements, they may disprove the plaintiff's claims that the defendants doubted the truth of what they were saying.

On the other hand, social media lie detection technology may harm defendants who make statements about private-figure plaintiffs. Under Gertz v. Robert Welch, Inc., the standard for proving defamation in these cases may be as low as negligence (although plaintiffs would only be able to recover actual damages if successful). Under a negligence standard, defendants' failure to use lie detector software may open them up to liability if that software is readily available. Using this type of technology to verify the truth of a story may become an expected step in publishing information online, and if lie detection software ends up being effective, cheap, and widely available, this could change the dynamic of online defamation cases involving private-figure plaintiffs.

The technology is still in its development, and will be in the testing phase over the next three years, but it is an important piece of technology to watch.

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