The Case of Viral v. Viral: Buzzfeed Sued for Defamation

Remember that viral news story about a Russian fisherman attacked by a bear but saved by a Justin Bieber ringtone? Or the college student who set his school on fire with a fireworks marriage proposal? Or how about the lonely Chinese teenagers taking cabbages for walks? Well, BuzzFeed had to get those stories from somewhere.

Those three and more came from Central European News (CEN), an agency that BuzzFeed also called “The King of Bullsh*t News.” Well it turns out CEN didn’t take kindly to that description, and is now suing BuzzFeed for $11 million, claiming the story was defamatory.

You Can’t Bullsh*t a Bullsh*tter

BuzzFeed allegedly investigated 41 CEN articles: “Of those, 11 proved to be completely false or to be based on images that did not match the stories; eight more contained suspicious details such as perfect quotes that appeared in no other coverage; 13 we were unable to verify either way; and nine appeared to be real or mostly real.” BuzzFeed also looked at 10 of its own posts that were based on CEN content, and appended those stories with updates.

However, journalist Michael Leidig stands by the posts, saying BuzzFeed reporters didn’t do enough to prove the stories were false. His lawsuit claims, “Young people in China had walked cabbages out of loneliness; the persons quoted in the CEN story were real and the quotes correct; and the story was widely re-published in China, leading to some public-opinion surveys conducted about the phenomenon, which led to further news stories there.”

Direct or Defamatory?

But Leidig and CEN might have an uphill battle proving BuzzFeed’s story was defamatory. First, they will have to prove that elements of the story are false, which may be difficult to do if the story was well-researched and edited. Second, they will have to prove these false statements caused them injury. While damages may be presumed in some instances of defamation (like criminal accusations), CEN will probably have to demonstrate some financial harm caused by BuzzFeed’s story.

Finally, and perhaps most difficult, CEN will have to prove the story was published with “actual malice.” While this doesn’t necessarily mean ill will, it is a higher standard for statements regarding people who have voluntarily assumed a position in the public eye. Because CEN and Leidig are public figures, they will have to demonstrate that BuzzFeed’s defamatory statements were made with either the knowledge that they were false or a reckless disregard for whether they were true or false.

We’ll have to wait and see if CEN’s lawsuit passes the smell test.

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