Posting false information online can lead to libel charge

- We know social media can be used for many positive things. But, when used recklessly, it has to power to destroy.

A Lakeland man learned that after his name, his photo and even his kids' photos were shared throughout Facebook, along with a story police say was filled with "false information" and "speculation."

These days, all it takes is a few keystrokes and a click to open a can of worms on social media.

"It's the old expression. 'You can't un-ring a bell.' And that's what you have on the internet," said attorney Ralph Guito of the McIntyre Law Firm in Tampa.

Here's how the most recent local social media witch hunt started. Saturday, a 2-year-old got separated from her parents at the Southwest Sports Complex in Lakeland. A man attending the game there said he tried to help.

"He saw that the child was in danger," said Sgt. Gary Gross of the Lakeland Police Department.  "She was wandering off and he did the right thing by going to her, getting her attention, trying to find the parents. We had an independent eyewitness that saw him walk around asking, is this your parents? Is that your father?"

But, when the father saw the man carrying the child in his arms, he started throwing punches.

"I wanted to kill the man," Austin Strickland said. "You just don't take someone else's kid and walk to the parking lot or walk in that direction."

Lakeland police ultimately determined this was a "Good Samaritan trying to assist a lost child."

The internet police made a different call.

"People were posting bad information," Gross said.
  
The man's picture, name and job information were raked across the coals of Facebook, accompanied by a story painting him as a sexual predator.

"With social media, those statements get propagated so fast that by the time the truth comes out, the damage is already done," Guito said.

Guito, who's also known as "Ralph the Lawyer," said there's no difference between social media or a newspaper. If it's a false statement that published to a third party, you could be charged with libel and could be liable for damages. Even sharing a false post can be risky.

"If you have a post and the re-poster says, 'I agree with this statement' or 'way to go' or 'kudos' or makes some kind of comment, even a thumbs up could potentially have some exposure," Guito said.

Sunday, Lakeland police posted a warning on its Facebook page about the false information that was circulating. Some commenters expressed regret for sharing the post, saying, "things like this will ruin someone's life" and "definitely teaches me to double check sources before spreading."

Guito agrees with that advice.

"Think twice, three times, four times before you click that," Guito said. "It's so hard to put that genie back into the bottle."

As for that good Samaritan, police say he did not press charges for being punched because he's also a dad and understands how frantic that other father must have been in the situation.

However, he said this whole thing has shaken him up so much that he and his family left the area for their safety until this dies down.

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