In 2017, BuzzFeed News made the decision to publish a 35-page dossier containing unverified information about the Trump presidential campaign and its possible ties to the Russian government. A Russian technology executive who also heads a tech company located in Florida subsequently sued the news source for defamation because he was named in the dossier.
The document published by BuzzFeed, which is now referred to as the “Steele Dossier,” has been the focus of considerable national attention ever since. The Russian executive charged that BuzzFeed was reckless in publishing the dossier, which included allegations that the Florida tech company tried to hack servers belonging to the Democratic Party. After being sued, Buzzfeed did black out the name of the executive and his company in its publications.
Here’s why the judge ultimately ruled that BuzzFeed wasn’t guilty of defamation:
- The information included in the dossier was part of intelligence briefings given to then-President Obama, making them official proceedings. That afforded BuzzFeed additional latitude to provide the public with the information for the public good.
- The dossier included the disclaimer that the allegations in it were “unverified and potentially unverifiable.”
While not all news agencies felt that the decision to publish the dossier was ethical — it does appear to be legal. The businessman named in the suit intends to appeal the judge’s decision, however, so this may not be the final word.
It’s very easy to end up being sued for defamation and every business owner with a social media page needs to be conscious of that fact. In general, here are the things you need to remember before you publish anything on a website, blog, or social media page:
- The truth is always your best defense against defamation charges.
- If you say something negative about another business or business owner, stick to statements that are either verifiable facts or your own, personal observations — never hearsay.
- Avoid labels. Never accuse another business owner of being a “cheat” or a “fraud.” Tell your experience with that business owner and let people draw their own conclusions.
Finally, when in doubt, you should always consult an experienced attorney before you publish anything online that might be problematic.