Online defamation court cases double in the space of a year

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The number of court cases brought by people who say they have been defamed online has more than doubled in a year, as social networks become prime ground for the spread of defamatory information.

The growing use of social media networks such as Twitter and Facebook are thought to be the main cause of the surge after a year which saw internet-related libel cases in England and Wales rise from seven to 16.

The singer Courtney Love is among those who have fallen foul of online defamation laws. She is being sued for a second time for posting defamatory statements on Twitter.

Ms Love paid $430,000 (£263,000) to settle a lawsuit brought against her by the designer Dawn Simonrangkir in March after calling her a "nasty lying hosebag thief" on Twitter in a dispute over money. She is now being sued again after making allegedly libellous statements about the law firm that used to represent her, also on Twitter.

The new figures, drawn from the legal information provider Sweet and Maxwell's Lawtel and Westlaw UK services, have led to calls for more accountability for what people write online. The barrister Korieh Duodu, a media specialist with Addleshaw Goddard, said a good deal of material on the internet is written by non-professionals without any of the fact-checking in traditional media organisations.

"There is certainly a need for greater accountability of the providers of user-generated content," he said.

Mr Duodu said the growth of social media networks and the way they are used was a big factor in the rise. He said: "Social media tools have over a billion users worldwide and are growing rapidly in popularity. Nevertheless, they can present a huge problem for individuals and corporates trying to protect reputations from harmful user-generated content." He added: "People who find themselves damaged on social media sites can find it time-consuming and difficult to have the offending material removed, because many platform providers do not accept responsibility for their users' content."

The UK Government is looking to reform the law with a draft Defamation Bill, currently going through Westminster, which ministers say will help to ensure that people can state honest opinions on the internet with confidence.