Per this story in the New York Times today, an Instagram account known as Diet Madison Avenue has been soliciting tips from users on sexual improprieties taking place in the advertising industry, and then posting such information publicly. Before being deleted (more on that momentarily), the account named 12 different men in the industry as abusers, and grew to 20,000 followers, more than enough to do significant damage to the reputation of someone wrongfully accused of misconduct.
Ralph Watson is the former chief creative officer of a Colorado advertising firm, who now claims, via a lawsuit filed in Los Angeles, that he’s been wrongfully smeared, and has been drummed out of his industry as a result. While plaintiffs who have been defamed often find it hard to identify and quantify clear damages resulting from the wrongful communications, losing one’s job and career is a textbook type of reputational harm, which courts and juries are often quite willing to remedy with substantial damages.
The outcome will of course turn on the evidence in the case, including especially whether Mr. Watson is able to convince a fact-finder that he is not guilty of repeated harassment. But the more timely question is whether the court will allow Mr. Watson to do discovery to determine who exactly was behind the anonymous Instagram account that started it all. The account has been deleted, and there are rumors that it was operated by more than a dozen different people, making it difficult to know who to pin the blame for this specific post on, and who ought to share in the liability. The typical means of identifying an online poster is a subpoena to the hosting site, in the case, Instagram. But often a social media platform will strongly resist such efforts, as a means of protecting its users and thus lubricating future communications on its service. If Instagram wants to make a big enough fight of this, it could ultimately sap Mr. Watson’s resources before he ever finds out the name of his defamers. But courts are becoming more and more aware of these issues, since in 2018, more and more of the statements at the heart of defamation cases are made by anonymous internet users.