Defamation IV: The Media, the Public and the Loss of Control

In social media and other internet platforms and forums, the original perpetrator disappears, cause and effect are obscured, attacks are transported and amplified, and their effects unfold uncontrollably. The media and the public become accomplices and must be sensitised to this. This article explains how counter-strategies can be developed.

Published by Claudia Gigler for the SAFI-Konferenz 2023 in Paris. Read the full text in German here.

Key messages:

  • Defamation happens. Women are particularly affected. They fall silent and disappear.
  • It is often anonymous actors in social media who set fires. It is mass media platforms who do not check and double-check. Even what we see is no longer necessarily true.
  • What might have happened replaces reality.
  • The media are amplifiers, awareness should be raised.
  • People and institutions are unwillingly in the media spotlight and often not prepared.

You have heard from Zita Küng and Barbara Degen how defamation of women is to be seen in the context of their rights and the ethical-moral code of our society.

You have heard from Ulrike Reiche about the cost of defamation and that potentially affected women AND the institutions they work for should be prepared.

I would now like to look at the nature of our media environment, in what ways it has changed, how it affects people, who are harmed, especially women, and what framework conditions are needed to (re)gain control over what is happening.

Media have always been associated with the risk of defamation. „Lost Honor of Katharina Blum“ by Heinrich Böll for example was published in 1974 and is about the German “Bild-Zeitung”, a tabloid with a very high circulation, and the exposure of a woman in public because of her friendship with a criminal.

What has changed?

When we talk about media and the public sphere today, we must distinguish between mass media and social media. We talk about digital revolution:

  • It is no longer just individual, visible defamers and controllable platforms that have an effect, but it is anonymous actors in social media, including rating platforms, who set fires and whose sparks bring a flood of defamatory reactions with the participation of many.
  • It is mass media platforms that in many cases do not defame on their own initiative but take over content and can no longer afford or do not want to provide the time and personnel necessary to check and double-check the content of information before adopting and publishing defamatory content.
  • The latest development: not only what we hear and read, but also what we see is no longer necessarily true: photos and videos can be technically manipulated with hardly any effort, people can be presented in a false light.

On social media and on other channels on the web, the original defamer disappears, cause and effect are obscured, but attacks are transported and amplified. The effect gets out of control.

Mass media platforms developed an „extended version“ – inadequately controlled forums where users rage uncontrollably and contribute to the defamation of the person in focus.

Defamation happens. The victims fall silent. There is a lack of awareness that so many are becoming accomplices.

Women are particularly affected, especially successful women. Why?

  • They invade men’s spheres of power and influence.
  • They make themselves loud where they are expected to be quiet.
  • They become bosses of men who would like to set the agenda themselves.

The ugly new world

People „wait“ for rumours, they love to pass them on, and they tend to trust rumours even if they can be refuted, as the Max Planck Institute surveyed in a 2007 study. The new thing is:

  • Defamation takes place in public and everyone has the technical means at their disposal to reach lots of people. The victim is virtually pilloried. Curiosity and voyeurism promote and accelerate the process.
  • A rejected person, a competitor, a political opponent, a troublemaker thus determines public opinion. In the end there are many accusers, but no defenders.
  • The accusation becomes a verdict, in the eyes of the regional community, of one’s own company or institution, or in the eyes of the customers of these companies and institution..

Ugly new media world: It no longer matters what happened. What might have happened is the deciding factor and can replace reality.

It is a sort of “jurisprudence” outside the courtrooms, and it is not the damage to the victim, that matters, but the victim’s environment feels threatened and harmed themselves by the rumour – regardless of whether the basis of this rumour is information that is true or false.

Let us return to our three case studies – what was the role of the media?

Back to literature: Her powerlessness and the despair over this powerlessness let Katharina Blum go from victim to perpetrator, she murders the journalist who discredits her.

  • Jolanda Spiess, the journalist and former politician from Switzerland, also woke up from her powerlessness, and she also went on the offensive, she resisted and is still resisting with all means. She is leading – and winning – countless lawsuits, and she became creative: She defined the benefit of the media, for example the visits to their websites, as a direct result of click-bait-journalism, as wins on her back which she claims from the publishers. This is a promising approach. We know, it hurts, when it comes to money.
  • Heidrun Primas, the Austrian cultural manager, was mainly attacked by a rightwing party. She and her institution, the Forum Stadtpark, survived the attacks, also because the other parties strongly stood behind her. The institution still exists and Heidrun Primas still has a good reputation in the cultural scene. She is a strong woman, backed by a very respected family. Unfortunately we know a lot of different stories, stories about women who have been silenced, who lost their jobs, who got new jobs and are constantly afraid that one day they will experience déjà vu. We cannot present their stories because we have to protect these women. 
  • Annette Kuhn was the victim of a smear campaign already in the 1970s. At that time, for example open letters were common, the media picked up the topic and questioned her qualifications. Her teaching license was revoked and only returned after a long, tough struggle. In return she was sworn to remain silent.

Incitement to hatred, defamation and slander over the past decades have led to media laws that are effective in a way. But it is extremely difficult to fight defamation when the defamers disappear in the smokescreen of social media, when the damage cannot be causally attributed, when the victim is destroyed in her existence by being muzzled until she gives up.

We need to get more women into leadership positions, and great efforts are being made to achieve that. Little attention is paid to how long women hold on to leadership positions, how many battles they have to fight against invisible enemies who persistently defame them, who undermine them in their positions and sooner or later make them disappear.

Counter strategies

The motivation for defamation usually comes from interpersonal relationships:  disappointment, rejection, envy, competition (also between companies and institutions), misunderstandings or a subjective sense of injustice.

A driver is sensationalism and the desire to make a profit from it: Click-bait journalism, voyeuristic interest in crime and courtroom reporting, „exclusivity“ of „news.“ Bad news and rumours are interesting for the audience, messages are often viewed and commented on. The media take advantage of their readers’ habits and reactions and support clickbait-journalism to increase their own audience.

The effect on those affected is disastrous, because they are unwillingly in the media spotlight, and often they are not prepared:

Privacy is lost

Privacy is lost, the threat is unfolding before the public’s eyes, causing existential anxiety. Existential anxiety refers not only to your economic livelihood, but also to your social life, relationships, and reputation. Not having any influence on what is happening paralyses the victims and makes them sink into shame, with no end in sight.

It is important to be prepared and to develop counter-strategies at an early stage. ·      Many people experiencing defamation would never have thought before that this might happen to them. They are shocked and paralyzed.·      It is possible to resist, and it is possible to organize solidarity, but it helps to be prepared.

  • Prevention includes early detection of your vulnerabilities, possible dangers – and close observation of what is happening. Especially referring to social media, there are also technical tools – programmes for „social listening“.
  • When critical situations appear possible, it is advisable to seek advice. Even in connection with applications for important positions, for example in the run-up to hearings and decisions, when powerful and media-experienced opponents are to be expected, it makes sense to design a positioning strategy.
  • Institutions, organizations and companies are required to develop preventive concepts for protection and defence
  • Once the crisis has occurred, action must be taken as quickly as possible, because fighting it is most effective in the early stages: the aim is
    –  to contain the „shitstorm„,
    –  to (re)gain trust,
    –  to end the „vacuum of speculation“ by taking a position and not just leaving the sovereignty of interpretation to others.
    –  to actively face the situation,
    –  to take criticism seriously and to communicate the situation openly: admit to any mistakes, but reject defamation,
    –  to clarify things in your own area before striking back.

External reporting offices and standardized processes, including legal protection, make rapid agreement on a one-voice policy possible. A difficult thing, especially in the all-important early stages, is trust and credibility. Defamation often reaches into the most personal sphere of life, and superiors / colleagues / employers, who do not know what actually happened, think they are taking a risk if they take a position too early.

The media are amplifiers and can become accomplices, thus they contribute to defamation. They should raise awareness in their editorial teams about their role in what is happening. There should be a clearly marked point of contact for complaints. The editorial offices should be equipped with sufficient resources to recognize defamatory content and fake news in order to prevent its further dissemination.

But also the audience should be strengthened in their media skills in order to be able to recognize and question defamatory content.


„Punishment“ is the major theme of this conference. „Non punishment“ is our theme – the powerlessness of women who are subjected to defamation campaigns. As a result, they disappear from the higher ranks that they have fought hard to achieve.

I would like to conclude with an example from legal practice: In Austria we have a law against “Hate on the Internet”, it came into force in January 2021. The story behind it: Two years before, the Green politician Sigrid Maurer had been subjected to foul-mouthed abuse; the „scene of the crime“ was a private messenger service. Due to the lack of publicity in the sense of the Criminal Code, the insults could not be prosecuted in court. But Maurer, who made the insults public, was convicted of defamation. (Only later was the verdict overturned because the court had set the bar for proving the truth too high.)

As I said: The defamer’s insults could not be prosecuted in 2018. The new law provides ways to enforce the omission and deletion of such messages, and there are other improvements, including free psychosocial process support. According to this law Incitement to hatred is committed, among other things, by anyone who insults groups of people, for example because of their gender, in such a way that the group gets exposed to public contempt and its human dignity is thus violated.

But after another year and a half, we see:

There are

  • hardly any proceedings,
  • so far not a single punishment,
  • hardly anyone takes advantage of the psychosocial process support or of the new procedure that allows authorities to find anonymous defamers.

Why?  Nikolaus Forgo of the University of Vienna states that it is a „mixture of defenceless victims who do not have the energy to defend themselves, and an overall brutalized tone with many borderline cases, which in many cases simply seem too costly to dispute”.

Dear ladies (and gentlemen): In case you want to stay in contact with us or take another look on our contributions, please see our website.  Our speeches will be published there next week.

There is still a lot to do!

Mag. Claudia Gigler studied German and English and is a journalist, moderator and trainer. She is a board member of FELIN (Female Leaders Initiative) and teaches “Communication theory – gender and diversity” at FH Joanneum in Graz.

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