With all the hand-wringing over fake news these days, many are wondering whether it isn’t actionable libel to publish false news accounts. Take “Pizzagate,” for example. Shortly before the election, rumors began circulating on the Internet that Hillary Clinton and her former campaign manager, John Podesta, were running a child sex-slave operation in the back of family-friendly Washington pizzeria Comet Ping Pong. As ridiculous as that sounds, the message reached a massive audience on social media and before long, the restaurant was receiving death threats and other threatening messages on Instagram, Facebook, and Twitter. People started trashing the business on Google and Yelp. Eventually, a young man from North Carolina traveled to the restaurant to personally investigate the story and rescue any sex slaves in need of his assistance. He brought an assault rifle with him. It’s probably safe to assume that Comet’s business has suffered.
If Hillary Clinton is running a child sex-slave ring, she isn’t doing it at Comet Ping Pong: the story was pure fiction. So what’s a business like Comet to do? Defamation claims are usually about the protection of individuals’ personal reputations. In this situation, false news articles were being published about Comet’s business itself rather than about any particular individual associated with the business. In short, it doesn’t matter. Corporations are treated like people in most contexts, and this one is no different. Comet could conceivably sue for trade libel, common-law defamation, tortious interference, or business conspiracy, among other claims. Let’s focus on the commercial defamation angle.