Falsely accused by Anonymous Accounts, but it doesn’t mean you won’t be compensated
A High Court judgment was handed down on 15 July 2021, where the judge ordered Google LLC to take down the blogging website containing defamatory articles posted and shared by an anonymous account. Despite its anonymity and its use of an end-to-end encrypted email service, the anonymous blogger was ordered to pay the claimant £70,000 in damages.
CASE SUMMARY – Blackledge v Person(s) Unknown  EWHC 1994 (QB)
- A professor in politics and ethics, Dr Paul Blackledge (“the Claimant”), was accused of a series of serious sexual misconduct and assaults by an anonymous blogger in three articles published under a pseudonym on a blogging platform in 2020, hosted by Google LLC. These posts also falsely alleged that the Claimant was guilty of rape, covered up his crimes and humiliated survivors of his abuse. The anonymous blogger (“the Defendant”) also disseminated those false allegations to the Claimant’s professional colleagues as part of a “vindictive and relentless” campaign of online abuse and harassment in a sustained fashion over several months. Beyond these primary recipients, the evidence demonstrated the operation of the “grapevine effect“, where scurrilous allegations “percolate through underground channels and contaminate hidden springs” (see paras 41-47 of judgment).
- Mr Justice Saini handed down the judgment last Thursday on 15 July 2021, ruling that these articles were “gravely defamatory allegations”. These extremely serious allegations claimed that the Claimant was a sexual predator guilty of a series of serious sexual assaults, including rape. The allegations were entirely false and had damaged the Claimant’s professional standing and causing him and his family substantial distress.
- Mr Justice Saini ordered, despite its anonymity, the author of the post to pay £70,000 in damages for libel the course of conduct amounting to harassment (see paras 34-35 of judgment) and pay almost £45,000 in costs. Mr Justice Saini also made an order requiring Google LLC to remove the defamatory material.
- The High Court held that libel damages have a threefold purpose, namely:
- to compensate for distress and hurt feelings;
- to serve as an outward and visible sign of vindication; and
- to compensate for actual injury to reputation which has been proved or might reasonably be inferred.
- When considering damages in the harassment claim, it is established that the following factors are relevant:
- The distress and alarm caused by the Defendant’s conduct.
- The allegations, the posts and the harassment campaign were directly targeted at the Claimant and would come to the Claimant’s attention.
- The vindictive and relentless nature of the Defendant’s campaign.
- To prevent any further offensive campaign against the Claimant, regarding the libel claim, the Court granted an injunction restraining the Defendant from further publication of the defamatory statements and causing to be published the same or similar words defamatory of the Claimant.
- In terms of the harassment campaign, the Court granted an injunction to prevent the Defendant from harassing the Claimant.
- The Court also made an 13 order, derived from the Defamation Act 2013, obliging Google LLC to remove the website which hosts the relevant blog.
- The judgment presents valuable guidance with regards to defamation claims against persons unknown or anonymous accounts online.
- This case is a striking example of how social media and the internet can be used to abuse and damage innocent individuals with apparent impunity. Here, although the Defendant had hidden behind anonymity, the judge awarded the Claimant a total sum of almost £115,000 (including costs).
- The s.13 power to order cessation can be a useful tool against obsessive online material and it can oblige third parties (who is not the author, editor, or publisher of the defamatory statement) such as the operator of a website or any person to remove the statement.