General News

'Shitstorm' on the internet: Who is liable?


According to Gabler, Wirtschaftslexikon, a "shitstorm" is a "storm of indignation in virtual space" with sometimes insulting statements against a person". As a "shitstorm" only arises through the interaction of many people, the Supreme Court recently had to deal with the question of liability for such a "shitstorm".

The case concerned a publication on Facebook. The plaintiff, a police officer, was filmed during an operation. A third party published the video with the following accompanying text - containing an appeal to participate in a "shitstorm": "Let this policeman's face go around the world. This policeman escalated at a demonstration in Innsbruck. An 82-year-old innocent man was pulled to the ground, arrested and interrogated for hours. This policeman is guilty." In fact, the plaintiff had only been part of a police cordon at the time and had not taken part in the official action against the 82-year-old man. The defendant shared the post on his Facebook profile out of "displeasure" as he claimed and, according to the court's findings, took the risk of circulating a picture of the plaintiff together with the accompanying text without checking its truthfulness. The plaintiff identified 406 people who had also shared this post on their Facebook profiles. The posts contained several disparaging comments such as "get rid of that fucking policeman" or "psychopathic wanker".

The Supreme Court awarded € 3,000.00 to the plaintiff police officer, who was seeking non-material damages due to breaches of data and image protection. The Supreme Court dealt intensively with the legal question of proving causation and the (in)divisibility of the damage caused by a "shitstorm" and came to the conclusion "that the victim of a 'shitstorm' does not have to name and prove the specific 'source' of the disparaging statement as the cause of every offence or emotional impairment suffered by him, for example by confronting it in his environment. 

It is sufficient for the plaintiff to prove that he or she was the victim of a "shitstorm" and that the specifically accused perpetrator participated in it unlawfully and culpably". The most important statement of this decision is therefore that the victim of a "shitstorm" can demand compensation for the entire damage from the person involved. The difficulty of locating other tortfeasors and the risk of irrecoverability (in the case of individual tortfeasors) must be borne by them.

This decision by the Supreme Court will make it easier for victims of "shitstorms" to assert their non-material claims for damages in future.

First published in Horizont on 28.6.24