'You can track down the individuals': Charlotte County Whisper shuts down

'You can track down the individuals': Charlotte County Whisper shuts down

The Facebook page Charlotte County Whisper is shut down, seemingly for good.

"Alright people! This page is being shut down and will not be up and running again," the administrator posted on the page at approximately 1:20 p.m. Thursday.

While the Facebook page had disappeared, the Instagram account, which publishes photos along with captions about community members, remained up for a time. However, it appeared to have been taken down on Thursday evening.

While it was active, the page allowed users to post anonymously about members of the community without using names, only initials.

Thursday morning CBC published the story of three women coming forward to talkabout the page and the harassment they've received because of it. Little is known about who runs the page.

Fantasia Wong, Katelyn Bryant and Tara Linton all say the page was ruining lives.

They also said they were told separately by RCMP that because of the anonymity of the page and only initials were used, not much could be done.

RCMP advice

RCMP spokesperson Const. Hans Ouellette said when he comes across online defamation allegations he suggests people contact the website and legal counsel to understand the best course of action.  

He never wants to discourage people from coming forward to police but Facebook has its own guidelines, he said.

It's important to note that police enforce criminal laws, not civil law.

Most defamation cases fall under civil law.

Still, Ouellette says he knows how seeing vicious posts can affect a person.

"I was talking to one of my police officer contacts down there," he said. "He knew about it. They knew about the website. What was said."

"Yeah. It's distressing."

Lawyer says recourse still exists

A Halifax internet and privacy lawyer says legal recourse remains open for the women.

While many see defamation as a civil matter, he says a subsection of defamation in the criminal code exists that would also apply in this situation.

It reads, "a defamatory libel is matter published, without lawful justification or excuse, that is likely to injure the reputation of any person by exposing him to hatred, contempt or ridicule, or that is designed to insult the person of or concerning whom it is published."

"[Defamation is] anything that refers to somebody, where that somebody is identifiable, and lowers their estimation in the minds of right thinking people generally," David Fraser said on Maritime Noon before the page shut down.

In previous interviews, the women told CBC that in a small county like Charlotte, everybody can be identified by their initials.

"If you can recognize who the person being referred to is, that's still defamatory," the McInnis Cooper lawyer said.

Fraser also noted that people tagging those targeted by posts in the comments could find themselves on the wrong end of a defamation case as well.

The difference between the online defamation and chatty conversations about neighbours at a coffee shop, said Fraser, is audience size. There's also the persistence of information that distinguishes online defamation from other kinds.

He doesn't think only posting initials, or the page administrator's anonymity, cuts it. 

"Although you think you have anonymity on Facebook," said David Fraser. "In fact, all you have is pseudonymity."

"It has been, in my experience, that you can track down the individuals," he said.

Two major defences against defamation charges include, whether what's said can be proven definitively true and whether it exists under "fair comment," Fraser said.

"Malice will vitiate the defence of fair comment," he said. "But truth is truth, regardless of whether it is said maliciously."

Ticking clock

The lawyer suggested the three women return to the RCMP armed with this new information.

"I think, if they are able to, contact legal counsel who has experience with this sort of thing," he said.

All three women said they were considering further action, but Wong and Linton said if the page remains shut down, they'll be happy enough to let it go.

"Hopefully they got scared and it stays shut down," Linton wrote to CBC in a Facebook message.

But Fraser said, now the page has been shut down, there's also a time limit.

"The clock probably starts ticking on Facebook purging information associated with it from their systems," he said, "Once the page is gone, there may be a limited amount of time to act."

"And unless someone has made a copy of the content, it may be difficult to put evidence in front of a court to get an order requiring Facebook to provide information about the administrators."