The Big Picture

Patrick Goldstein and James Rainey
on entertainment and media

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Anonymous Internet trolls don't have much to fear

February 25, 2011 |  6:23 pm

SereneBranson Video of KCBS reporter Serene Branson speaking incoherently on Grammy night became a YouTube sensation.

For most people, the scary incident (later revealed to be triggered by Branson's migraine symptoms) provoked sympathy. That doesn't include the trolls who skulk about the Internet, waiting for the next opportunity to put their stupidity and callousness on display.

My “On the Media” column Saturday is devoted to how The Times and other news organizations are trying to minimize such drivel. They hope to improve the quality of discourse, so real conversation can flow.

That's not what happened after the Branson episode last week, which provoked a lot of lame chatter and a post on by one dimwit who had to call Branson a “party bimbo.” This charming reader further smeared the newswoman with a few other unsubstantiated claims--not worth repeating here. (Times editors quickly removed the offensive post.)

A lot of readers probably have wondered how people can get away with making statements that can be proved demonstrably false. And what about news sites: Don't they have some liability when they provide a forum where others are defamed?

People who post untrue and damaging e-mail can be held liable. But the law protects news outlets that provide the platform. Under Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, news outlets are not legally responsible for third-party postings that might be libelous or invade someone’s privacy, said media attorney Kelli Sager, who sometimes represents The Times.

Most  of the noxious postings, like the one in the Branson story, probably go unnoticed by their targets. And, even when public figures become aware of the smears, most probably want to move on rather than get bogged down in legal action.

The absence of serious consequences, combined with the anonymity allowed on most websites, creates a fertile feeding ground for unscrupulous Internet trolls.

--James Rainey

Twitter: latimesrainey

Photo: KCBS reporter Serene Branson gained nationwide celebrity when she began to babble incoherently during a live report on the night of the Grammy Awards. Following numerous tests, her doctors diagnosed a "complex migraine." Credit: Al Seib / Los Angeles Times