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RUSSELL WANGERSKY: Thinking on your feet
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You can run, but don’t bet on effectively hiding. At least, not for ever. And sometimes, not at all.
Recently, two employees of a contracting firm working at Churchill Falls were caught on video making disparaging comments about Indigenous Labradorians on their flight south.
They were found and outed — simply enough by the airline, which, after all, had their seat numbers and names. But social media and some media outlets also tracked the two down quickly.
The resulting retribution was swift and harsh: they lost their jobs, were banned from flying Provincial Airlines, and the list goes on.
The simple lesson is that there are consequences for your actions and even your words — and sometimes, those consequences are devastating.
Often, it doesn’t look that way on the internet. Claiming that they deserve the protection of freedom of speech, anonymous trolls seem to have forgotten that freedom of speech doesn’t mean freedom from consequences. You have every freedom in the world to go around at work calling your boss a hose-headed loser. It doesn’t mean you’re going to get to keep your job if she finds out.
And there are some interesting court cases that are making that point.
The Telegram reported Friday via The Western Star on a case in western Newfoundland, where a hotel owner got a settlement from an individual who posted disparaging remarks about his business online.
But an Ontario situation makes the case even more clearly.
A firm called Theralase Technologies won a lawsuit Monday against a series of plaintiffs who had attacked the firm on an online message board. The attackers had names like Lazerr00, Pennyoilking, Bluebomber6, BionicJoe, MacMan1519, Nastynasta, Needtoknow68, Truenorthstrong, Tuesdaynightrid and Crazytrader12.
You may hope your online anonymity will hold up like the Hoover dam, even after a court rules you owe, say, $35,000 in defamation damages and a hefty slab of legal fees on top of that.
What makes the case interesting is that the only identifying information that the message board could provide about the attackers was their email addresses. Even so, the judge in the case ruled that notifying the attackers of the court action at those email addresses was enough to find that they’d been properly notified, and had failed to appear to defend themselves.
When they didn’t show, the judge issued verdicts which included penalties of $10,000 to $75,000 against each of the online attackers, in some cases for single posts that were seen by only a handful of people.
You may think it’s a hollow victory.
It’s true that the company — and the two corporate officers who also successfully sued the commenters — may never see their money, nor the $55,000 in legal fees they were awarded.
Think of this, though: you may feel safe trashing others from the hidey-hole where your computer keyboard sits. You may hope your online anonymity will hold up like the Hoover dam, even after a court rules that you owe, say, $35,000 in defamation damages and a hefty slab of legal fees on top of that.
But how is it going to feel when you wake up at two in the morning and realize that the chickens might just eventually come home to roost and destroy your financial security? Not only that, but you have no idea when that grief might arrive.
The internet is not truly anonymous. Everything is tracked, if not completely accessibly, at least thoroughly. And if someone wants to find anonymous you, they may well eventually be able do so. And don’t forget, the world is changeable — things that seem impossible this month may well be possible next month.
A judgment like that is a heck of a thing to have hanging over your head.
When it comes to hiding behind anonymous internet “handles,” the reckoning can’t come swiftly enough.
So, go ahead — speak your mind. But don’t imagine for a minute that it means you’re magically absolved from the impact of your words.
Russell Wangersky’s column appears in SaltWire publications across Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky