In Social Media Age, Desecration Of Reputation Child’s Play: HC

New Delhi:  The Delhi High Court on Tuesday said social media had made desecration of a public figure’s reputation “child’s play”, as it slammed activist Saket Gokhale for posting defamatory tweets against former United Nations Assistant Secretary General Lakshmi Puri, wife of Union Minister Hardeep Singh Puri.

The court directed Gokhale to immediately delete the tweets alleging Puri had purchased certain property in Switzerland which was disproportionate to her income.

A bench of Justice C. Hari Shankar said: “In the age of social media, desecration of the reputation of a public figure has become child’s play. All that is needed is the opening of a social media account and, thereafter, the posting of messages on the account.”

“It is an unfortunate truism, of human nature – which forms subject matter of philosophical debate since ages – that we prefer brickbats to bouquets.”

Justice Shankar made it clear if Gokhale, fails to delete the tweets, then Twitter is directed to take down those URLs.

As Gokhale’s counsel argued that before posting messages on a social media platform, made accessible to all members of the public, against any person, no due diligence, by way of conducting, at the very least, a preliminary enquiry into the facts, is necessary, the court said: “Such a submission, if accepted, would place the reputation of every citizen in the country in serious jeopardy, and open to ransom at the hands of every social media vigilante, some of whose intentions may be less than honourable.”

The bench noted that criticism always makes for better press than praise, and the more vitriolic the criticism, the better, and the exponential growth of social media platforms provided fertile soil for the growth and mushrooming of this unfortunate human tendency.

“Social media, for all its unquestionable and undeniable benefits, as well as its indispensability in modern times, comes with its own sordid sequelae. The present instance appears to be a case in point,” it noted.

The court noted the damage that the plaintiff, and her husband, have suffered, as a result of Gokhale’s tweets is apparent; but that is one of the unavoidable pitfalls of access to social media platforms and the way in which they work, by those who abuse their facility, as Gokhale has, in the present case, prima facie chosen to do.

The high court noted that Puri has brought on record all necessary documentary and communication shared with government in connection with the property. “I am unable to find, prima facie, even a scintilla of impropriety, or lack of transparency, either in the purchase of the apartment, or in the disclosures made to the statutory authorities in that regard, either by the plaintiff or by her husband,” it said.

Senior advocate Maninder Singh, representing Puri, contended that Gokhale is a “pseudo-activist, whose intent is only to blackmail vulnerable persons in public life, such as his client”.

The court declined to accept the submission of Gokhale’s counsel that the law did not require a vigilante, who sought to post, on social media platforms, messages against public figures, to carry out any preliminary exercise of verification before doing so.

The court noted ideally, in the first instance, clarifications ought to have been sought from the person against whom the messages were intended to be posted. It also took a grim view on tagging the Finance Minister in one of the tweets by Gokhale.

“Such ‘tagging’ has, however, no sanctity whatsoever in law and is, in any event, woefully inadequate to serve as notice to the Finance Minister regarding the issues which the defendant was choosing to highlight,” it said.

The court added that loss and prejudice that the plaintiff is likely to suffer, as a consequence of the thoughtless tweets of the defendant, cannot be compensated in monetary terms.

The court noted a series of tweets, posted between June 13 and June 23, appeared to have been actuated by a clear desire to target her and her husband, for reasons which seem, at the very least, to be recondite.

Puri had filed the suit against Gokhale claiming that the tweets were defamatory, malicious, and based on false information.

The court issued summons in the main suit, asking Gokhale to respond within four weeks. It has listed the matter for further hearing on September 10, before the Registrar (Judicial). The order was passed in the defamation suit filed by Puri, where she sought damages to the tune of Rs 5 crore, besides an order to take down the tweets.