Defamation and ‘witch-wars’ on social media
A Witch on social media (Witch A.) recently accused another Witch (Witch B.) of “raising a demon who died in the 18th century” (?), to attack Witch A’s son. Another Witch (Witch C.) used the thread started by Witch A, to add that her illness started (and was caused) when she joined Witch B’s Facebook group. Members in Witch A’s Facebook group read this discussion. Some may now believe that accusations against Witch B. are or must be true. Gossip will certainly carry the accusations much further than a single group.
Note: This scenario captures two separate cases of libel against different persons, who have become “Witch B.” In each case, the accuser remains the same person – “Witch A.”
The mechanics of accusation
Accusations are not true just because someone makes them.
For an accusation to be factually true, it must be proven with verifiable supporting evidence.
Where the accuser found the evidence to prove that (1) a demon had died in the 18th century, and that (2) Witch B. had raised that same demon from the dead to do her bidding, is a perplexing mystery that will not be answered. Until actual evidence is deduced for the existence of this reputed demon, the story remains a fabricated statement, not a statement of fact.
That Witch A. used her son to evoke group sympathy for her fears for his safety is obvious, as is her intended malice – to libel Witch B. in public, using an accusation that can neither be proved nor disproved.
Witch-hunts in South Africa become Witch-wars on social media
In South Africa, accusations of witchcraft often result in violence against the accused.
On social media, that violence translates as shunning, rumour mongering, and the use of defensive and offensive counter-magic, especially when the accuser and her audience really believes the accusation to be true in spite of not having any evidence to prove it to be factually true.
Other members of the group may begin ascribing their physical, mental or emotional upset to the work of Witch B. and her Facebook group. The original lie will create a plethora of lies. Confirmation bias and group empathy will reinforce the original lie. Repeated often enough, it will become true for those who believe it.
Defamation and remedy
To prove defamation (whether slander – verbal defamation, or libel – written defamation) the statement:
a. must be false,
b. must injure your reputation,
c. must not be privileged (that would protect the offender from liability), and
d. must be made (spoken or published) to a third party.
The facts of this scenario prove all four elements of a defamation suit.
Witch B. has a common law right to corpus (physical integrity), fama (good name) and dignitas (honour). The false public accusations were intended to injure her reputation (her good name and honour).
Witch B, both in her personal capacity, and in her capacity as admin on the impugned Facebook group, has a civil case to make against both Witch A. and Witch C. for defamation.
Social media defamation Case Law
Heroldt v Wills 2013 (2) SA 530 (GSJ)
South Africa’s landmark online defamation case occurred in 2013 (Heroldt v Wills). Heroldt saught an interdict against Wills for posting a defamatory Facebook message about him. Wills alleged that Heroldt was an unfit parent due to his alleged substance abuse. There was also no evidence to support Wills’ accusations. The South Gauteng High Court ruled in favour of Heroldt. Wills was ordered to remove his Facebook post and to pay Heroldt’s legal fees.
The test for defamation, the court held, was whether a reasonable person of ordinary intelligence, might reasonably understand the words concerned to convey a meaning that is defamatory.
In another 2013 case of defamation on Facebook, the plaintiff Isparta was awarded an amount of R40 000 in damages by the North Gauteng High Court.
Para 41 of the judgement reads “Crude as damages for defamation may be, our courts have consistently awarded damages to the victims of defamation, albeit in modest amounts. Since the defendants did not apologise or retract their defamatory comments, I believe that an amount of R40 000 is appropriate in the circumstances.”
In this case, Mzwanele Manyi won a defamation lawsuit against #FeesMustFall activist Mcebo Dlamini. Dlamini called Manyi a “lame, lazy, horny stinky old donkey” on a group WhatsApp message. The court awarded Manyi R55 000 in damages.
The Court clarified that in determining the amount in damages (quantum) with respect to defamation, it must have regard to:
a. the seriousness of the defamation;
b. the nature and extent of publication of the defamation;
c. the reputation, character and conduct of the plaintiff, and
Conflict and ethics
South African Pagans are not immune from inter-personal disagreements and personality conflicts. We are, after all, human. But we are also the objects of both fear and hatred by many non-Pagan South Africans. Our enemies ply their defamation against us through religious admonitions and condemnations.
Innocent people falsely accused of being witches and of practicing witchcraft to cause harm to others, are often assaulted and murdered in this country. False accusations tarnish reputations and ruin livelihoods. No-one is immune to the harm caused by malicious gossip on social media. The accusers are not immune from justice either.
Everyone is entitled to dignity, and to have their dignity respected and protected. Common sense dictates that we avoid making accusations of witchcraft against each other, that we avoid gossip on social media, and that we avoid sharing gossip with others, especially when that gossip amounts to defamation.
“Silence at the proper season is wisdom, and better than any speech.” Plutarch – Platonist philosopher, historian, biographer, essayist, and priest at the Temple of Apollo.