Wikipedia Fertile Ground for Libel

Posted July 11, 2013 in Internet Law by

Sneaky girl typing on a laptop


The beauty of Wikipedia is that anybody can edit the online encyclopedia’s pages. The danger of Wikipedia is the same.

By crowd-sourcing its editing functions, the website subjects the accuracy of its content to the scrutiny of the masses. Unfortunately that means that those with more nefarious motives are also free to change pages to their hearts’ content, at least until someone else comes along and fixes them.

What happens when somebody deliberately posts defamatory information libeling somebody else’s good name? Wikipedia itself provides several avenues to address the problem, but in some circumstances it may be necessary to seek recourse through the legal system.

“Wikipedia defamation is a little different from other places because of their editorial guidelines,” says Enrico Schaefer, founder of Internet law firm Traverse Legal. “It’s easy to throw stuff up on the site. Keeping it there and making it stick is more difficult.”


Whack a Mole

Enrico Schaefer

Before going to the trouble and expense of hiring an attorney, a person who feels he or she has been libeled can try to simply remove the false information. “Since the forum is designed for accuracy, someone will post something defamatory, and either the person who is the subject can go in and edit it out, or an editor can go in,” Schaefer says. If site administrators are made aware of someone who continuously makes bogus edits, they can ban the IP address the posts are being made from.

The real trouble comes from a persistent online adversary who repeatedly posts libel, sometimes using different computers and across various online platforms in a deranged online smear campaign against an individual. That’s when it’s time to call the lawyers. “It’s like whack a mole, put one down, it comes back up,” says Schaefer. “Because this could go on forever, you need to identify the person and either send a threat letter or file a lawsuit to get a cease and desist order.”

Just because defamatory information is removed doesn’t mean that a civil lawsuit cannot be brought against the offender. For example, Michigan political consultant Mark Grebner filed a lawsuit in 2009 over defamatory statements entered onto his Wikipedia biography, including an edit that claimed he was “sexually abusing children” that was present on the site for about 21 minutes before it was removed.

“If it was defamatory when it was posted, there is a cause of action,” Schaefer says. However, a potential plaintiff should carefully consider whether filing a suit will cause more trouble than it will solve.


Smear Campaigns

“Everyone who contacts us is very upset by what’s been posted, but we always tell them it could get a lot worse. You have to be careful about what you do next,” the attorney says. “If you threaten or challenge a person who is highly motivated, they will ramp up ten-fold on you.”

If provoked, the person may take the smear campaign to other websites like Yelp or Ripoff Report, where it is much more difficult to get content removed than on Wikipedia. Also consider that a lawsuit may draw attention to the very false claim that the plaintiff wishes to bury.

One option is to get a cease and desist court order without first notifying the subject, so he or she doesn’t have time to escalate the attack.

In any situation, it’s helpful to consult with experienced attorneys to map out a plan of action, try to discover the identity and motive of the libeler and determine the best path forward. “Do you really want to start a war before you know who’s on the other side fighting?” Schaefer says. “You can never take the first punch back so you need to be very careful before you throw it.”

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