1. The recent Singapore case of Rachel Wong and Olivia Wu is a timely reminder to legal practitioners and victims of social media defamation of the possible perils of defamation lawsuits. 
  2. Rachel is digital content creator and social media influencer.  According to her Instagram account, as at the date of this article, she has around 44,700 followers. 
  3. In December 2019, she married Singaporean footballer Anders Aplin.  However, in April 2020, four months after the wedding, annulment proceedings of the marriage began.  In March 2021, the marriage was legally annulled. 
  4. In December 2020, Olivia, whose relationship with Rachel remains unknown, began sharing a series of Instagram stories on her own Instagram page entitled “Cheater of 2020”.  These posts appear to suggest Rachel had been unfaithful to Anders.
  5. Rachel felt her reputation was important as she was a full-time social media influencer and her reputation and image directly affected her ability to strike business deals which she relied on to earn a living.   Feeling that her reputation had been damaged by Olivia’s Instagram stories, Rachel commenced defamation proceedings against Olivia when an apology was not forthcoming. 
  6. To justify her Instagram stories, Olivia applied to court for specific discovery of two categories of documents from Rachel.  The first category was Rachel’s correspondence with two men, namely Han (Rachel’s gym trainer) and Wan (the master of ceremonies at her wedding with Anders).   The second category was Rachel’s diary entries pertaining to Wan.
  7. In February 2022, the District Court registrar granted Olivia’s application.  Rachel appealed, but a District Court Judge affirmed the registrar’s decision.  Rachel further appealed to the High Court.  In a short but scathingly witty and colourful judgment, Wong Leng Si Rachel v Wu Su Han Olivia [2022] SGHC 151, dated 28 June 2022 (“the Judgment”), Justice Choo Han Teck (“the Judge”) dismissed Rachel’s appeal. 
  8. Examining the Judgment offers valuable lessons on social media and defamation. 

Lesson 1 – Anyone can be a social media influencer and be a victim of cyber defamation

“The plaintiff describes herself as “a full-time social media influencer, actress, model and host”. She maintains an Instagram account that she claims has 41,400 followers. That, I suppose, entitles her, in her estimation, to be a celebrity.”

  1. With the ease of creating digital content and the allure of instant fame and fortune with just one viral post away, it is hardly surprising that more and more people are contemplating or self-proclaiming to be a social media influencer.
  2. Brands may have previously sought the endorsement of big-name celebrities, but in the present social media dominant age, there has been a movement to also seek partnership with social media influencers who average between 10,000 to 100,000 followers.  These influencers have been labelled as micro influencers and research suggests they have unique advantages: (1) their followers are generally more engaged; (2) they are perceived as more trustworthy than celebrities and (3) they are much more affordable. 
  3. However, a person who chooses to embark on this modern career path may fail to fully appreciate that one potential downside is with a more recognizable presence on social media, he/she will readily become an easier target for defamation.
  4. So while the Judge may come across as somewhat dismissive when he considered Rachel’s measure of her own self-worth, it is fair to say that she has certainly developed her own social media status and could be considered a micro-influencer.

Lesson 2 – It all begins with the Statement of Claim

“It is not for me to decide on the merits of the action since this is only an appeal against the order for specific discovery against the plaintiff…But it is essential that the narrative is understood before the merits of this appeal can be determined. That, is the first challenge — the narrative is not clear. By a combination of Instagram-speak and the utter failure of counsel to translate that into English, the Statement of Claim is filled with chaff.”

  1. Judge Penney Azcarate in the recent Johnny Depp v Amber Heard defamation trial permitted the proceedings to be livestreamed and the world watched first-hand Johnny Depp’s fully prepared and highly competent legal team in action.  In particular, his attorney, Camille Vasquez (who unintentionally became an internet sensation herself because of the trial), significantly contributed to his success with repeated objections to questions asked by Amber Heard’s attorneys as well as the unrelenting cross-examination of Amber Heard herself. 
  2. However, as exciting as that trial may be, seasoned legal practitioners appreciate it may be years between the commencement of an action to the actual trial itself. 
  3. Groundwork for a successful trial is first laid with the statement of claim, which is the first opportunity to impress upon the Court the victim’s narrative and has important bearing on the outcome of certain interlocutory applications. 
  4. A good legal team will recognize that a properly drafted statement of claim follows procedural rules and as far as possible, includes the precise words or statements that are allegedly defamatory, as well as the natural and ordinary meaning or innuendos of such words or statements. 

Lesson 3 – Instruct lawyers specializing in defamation

“Mr Lun [Rachel’s lawyer] also argued that the application by the defendant was scandalous… The evidence sought may prove to be scandalous — if true, obviously, but it is scandalous only because of the nature of the subject matter of the defamation. The plaintiff had chosen to sue and the defendant seeks to justify her statements. The scandal will fall heavily on the plaintiff or the defendant, depending on who succeeds in this action, but this application in itself is neither scandalous nor vexatious.”

  1. One of the arguments put forth by Rachel’s lawyers was that Olivia’s application was scandalous.  The Judge pointed out that infidelity, being the subject matter of the defamation, was itself scandalous by nature but did not necessarily render Olivia’s application itself scandalous.
  2. A lawyer with specialist knowledge on defamation would have no doubt advised Rachel on both the overall merits of her substantive claim and her opposition to Olivia’s application for specific discovery and the consequences thereof.
  3. For instance, prior to Rachel even commencing the action, her lawyers should have advised her on the Streisand Effect, which is aptly named after world renowned American singer and actress, Barbara Streisand.  In 2003, she commenced legal action 
  4. For instance, prior to Rachel even commencing the action, her lawyers should have advised her on the Streisand Effect, which is aptly named after world renowned American singer and actress, Barbara Streisand.  In 2003, she commenced legal action against a man for the removal of certain photographs from a publicly accessible website.  She contended that it was an invasion of her privacy because the subject photographs captured her mansion, even though they accounted for only a small fraction of the photograph series which sought to show the coastline of California.
  5. The commencement of her lawsuit inadvertently attracted much more of people’s attention to the very photographs she had wished to remove.  Had she not filed the lawsuit, the public attention on the pictures might have been minimal.    
  6. In the context of defamation, the Streisand Effect can be triggered with legal activity attempting to suppress information.  There is clearly no one-size-fit-all solution.  However, a victim of cyber defamation must be duly advised of the possibility that litigation can often draw more unwanted attention to the subject matter of the defamation. 
  7. Hence, before advising on the commencement of any legal action, a lawyer should have a working knowledge of the social media platform in question and further assess whether the alleged offending content amounts to defamatory material.  If the content is indeed defamatory, it may be prudent and cost effective to simply request the social media platform to remove the offending content for a violation of its terms of service/rules/policy. 
  8. If appropriate, a cease-and-desist letter may also be an effective solution.  A victim, flushed with a sense of justice but stung by injury may be tempted to request that the cease-and-desist letter threaten the offender with the full wrath of the law.  However, a good lawyer must maintain a steady hand on the tiller as the letter should be clear, concise and professional.  The letter should ideally portray the victim being in the right and it is only reasonable for the offender to remove and not post further defamatory content.  It is important to be mindful that the offender may publish the letter for everyone to see, making it even more important that the letter not cause further controversy and harm to the victim. 

Lesson 4 - Be familiar with discovery principles

“Mr Lun’s main argument is that the plaintiff had already sworn on oath that she does not have the documents in her power, custody, or control.  Mr Lun’s submission is not an adequate one. It is not enough to say that the plaintiff does not have the kind of entries that the defendant is seeking in her diary (or diaries). The defendant wants to see what is in the diaries during the relevant period. The plaintiff has to produce the diaries and not just say that the diaries are blank.”

  1. Rachel attempted the tried-and-true method of making an affidavit of denying she had in her power, custody, or control the documents Olivia was seeking.  The Judge did not accept Rachel’s bare denial.    
  2. In Hong Kong, an affidavit that states that an affiant does not have the documents in his/her possession, custody or power, is in general, invariably taken at face value.  Subject to limited exceptions, such an affidavit is conclusive as to relevance and existence or otherwise of documents at the interlocutory stage so that the party applying for specific discovery cannot seek to go behind the statements or assertions in the affidavit by way of a further contentious affidavit or by applying to cross-examine the deponent. 
  3. The limited exceptions of showing insufficiency of an affidavit of discovery include where such insufficiency can be demonstrated by (1) pleadings, the list and affidavit of documents themselves, or documents referred to therein; (2) any other source that constitutes an admission of the existence of a discoverable document not so far discovered; and (3) an apparent exclusive of documents from discovery by a party under a misconception of the case.  
  4. Hong Kong Courts have been rigidly applying the above limited exceptions. However, it is submitted that Courts should not be overly rigid and reserve some flexibility to ensure cases are fairly adjudicated. For example, if there are documents that show the insufficiency of an affidavit of discovery, but such documents fall outside of the three categories of exceptions mentioned above, Courts should nonetheless adopt a slightly flexible approach to consider such documents. A more flexible approach is supported in other jurisdictions. 
  5. In the Canadian case of Mark Fishing Col Ltd v United Fisherman & Allied Workers’ Union (1968) 86 DLR (2d) 410, Tysoe JA observed, “I can see no justification for a stultification of justice by a strict adherence to the rule of practice laid down by Brett, LJ in 1880 limiting the sources to which the Court may look in order to ascertain whether or not a party has made a full and complete discovery of the documents in his possession or power.”  
  6. Similarly, in the Irish case of Duncan v The Governor of Portlaoise Prison [1997] 1 IR 558, the Kelly J observed…“It appears to me that the administration of justice…requires that the Courts have the ability to adjudicate fully upon the adequacy and accuracy of an Affidavit of Discovery…It appears to me that the Court must always retain the power and make available the necessary machinery to ensure that it is not so limited in administering justice.”
  7.  Whether Hong Kong Courts will adopt a more flexible approach in discovery applications remain to be seen.

 Lesson 5 – Victims need to conduct self-reflection

“In many discovery applications, the party resisting often claims…that the applicant is “only fishing”…In this case, samples of relevant material had been produced, and to extend the fishing analogy just a bit more, it is not a mere fishing expedition if fish has in fact been spotted.” 

  1. Though the subject matter of every defamation case is different, those involving personal and salacious allegations must be handled with extra care. 
  2. Prior to commencing litigation, Rachel’s lawyers should have advised her that all documents related to the subject matter at hand would have to be disclosed.  For reasons unknown, Olivia had samples of the relevant documents she was seeking.  In other words, Rachel must have known ahead of time that she had, at least one point in time, power, control or custody of her own correspondences with Han and Wan, as well as her own diary entries pertaining to Wan. 
  3.  Rachel’s case is a stark reminder that victims of defamation need to fully comprehend that no matter how personal some documents may be, such documents may need to be disclosed to the very person making the offending statements.  As such, prior to the commencement of a defamation lawsuit, the victim must make an informed decision on whether he/she is sufficiently comfortable in disclosing such information.  If he/she is not prepared to disclose such information, then it may be a blunder to commence the action in the very first place. 


  1. Rachel’s case offers valuable lessons to victims of social media defamation and legal practitioners. As discussed, commencing defamation lawsuits may be lengthy and costly.  By instructing lawyers specializing in defamation, victims of defamation can hopefully resolve matters before initiating formal legal proceedings, which in turn will hopefully save time, money and most important of all, preserve the reputation and mental well-being of the victim.