A Swiss man has been convicted of defamation for “liking” posts on Facebook.
The unnamed 45-year-old defendant, who lives in Zurich, used the social network’s feature to approve of a string of posts attacking an animal rights activist.
It is believed to be the first time a social media user has been punished for just liking something – an ambiguous act whose meaning is difficult to define precisely.
As previously reported by Heat Street, the posts accused Erwin Kessler – the leader of Swiss vegan group Vereins gegen Tierfabriken – of being a racist, an anti-Semite and a neo-Nazi.
They were part of a series of posts from 2015 questioning whether his group should be allowed to participate in a “Veganmania” street festival.
In a verdict delivered Monday, the court ultimately decided that the defendant was legally liable for the “liked” articles in virtually the same way as if he had written them himself.
A statement by the court, reported by the AFP news agency, said: “the defendant clearly endorsed the unseemly content and made it his own”.
He was reportedly challenged to either prove that the claims in the article were true, or that there was good reason to take the claims seriously.
The man could do neither, so was convicted of defamation, which could be followed with a fine.
The Swiss court’s precedent could have serious implication if adopted elsewhere, given that few social media users currently vet the truth of articles they share or react to online.
It could also be complicated by the variety of ways Facebook and other networks now offer to respond to stories – would, for instance, a “sad” or an “angry” react, which could indicate disagreement, have the same legal status as a regular “like”?
In a phone interview with Heat Street a spokesman for Facebook declined to comment on the case.
Courts across the world are still working out how to interpret the implications of likes, retweets and various other functions.
In 2013, a US federal court ruled that “liking” a Facebook page (potentially different from “liking” a post) was a “substantive statement” and therefore subject to protection by the first amendment.
In the UK, the late Conservative politician Lord McAlpine threatened to sue several people who retweeted false claims that he was a pedophile.
However, he ended up settling most of the cases in exchange for charity donations, meaning that the legal status of a retweet was not ultimately tested in court.