Facebook, Twitter, online message boards. Increased technology and the existence of social networks make it all-too-easy for someone to insult you online. But when does an "insult" turn into a cause of action under defamation law? What is defamation exactly?
For starters, "defamation" encompasses two types of civil wrongs. The first one is libel, which normally must be in writing. The second one is slander, which usually consists of oral communications.
Defamation typically requires the following several elements:
A statement must be made. Someone must have said or written something bad about you. And yes, Twitter posts can fall under this umbrella.
The statement must be published. A person must have either seen, heard of read the defamatory statement. If nobody heard the insult besides you and the guy who said it, it hasn't been published. Statements are considered published if they are made to a third party.
The statement must have caused injury. If a statement doesn't cause your reputation harm, it's not defamation.
Whatever was said must be false. What happens if someone tells a news reporter that their local congressman has evaded taxes for the last four years? Well, it was a statement that was published. It also likely caused injury. But if it's true then it's not defamation.
The statement can't be privileged. There are certain situations where statements are considered "privileged." For example, the law generally protects witnesses from defamation suits. This is so that they will be compelled to speak freely when they're on the stand.
Now that you know what defamation is, also keep in mind that there are many defenses. For example, opinions, no matter how hurtful, usually aren't covered by defamation law. You could write on your Twitter feed that "I think Joe is super ugly" without legal consequences. It's your opinion, so it's generally protected.