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(JOHN LEHMANN/THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

GARY MASON

Hear that story about Brian Burke? Read this Add to ...

It isn’t easy being a celebrity. For every person who admires you, there are just as many who think you’re a worthless, despicable human being who should be mocked mercilessly on the Internet.

Most of those who are subjected to social media invective and unfounded rumours spread by anonymous trolls attempt to ignore it. They feel there’s nothing to be gained by going after such people and drawing attention to their outrageous falsehoods. But there was bound to be a day when someone finally said, “Enough.”

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Enter Brian Burke.

Last month, the former Toronto Maple Leaf general manager filed a lawsuit in B.C. Supreme Court against 18 anonymous persons who allegedly posted comments suggesting he’d had an affair with television sports broadcaster Hazel Mae and fathered her child. This week, Mr. Burke’s legal team scored an important early victory in the case when the court said the complainant had the right to serve legal papers against online commentators via the message boards allegedly used to spread the material.

This was a crucial win for Mr. Burke, because seven of the people identified as disseminating the rumour can’t be contacted in any way other than through the message boards of the Internet forums where the allegedly libellous content was initially posted.

One of those who helped disperse the information has already identified himself publicly and apologized for his actions – likely on the advice of a lawyer. The others who Mr. Burke claims distributed the erroneous tale might be harder to track down. But he and his lawyers are determined to find them, and there are many on the sidelines cheering them on.

No one who knows Mr. Burke is likely to be surprised at his counterattack. He’s not one to be pushed around or maligned. The former GM is a Harvard-trained lawyer whose outsized persona and often brusque demeanour gets more attention than his first-rate mind. He would have thought long and hard before deciding to spend the big bucks it will cost to defend his name, especially since it could ultimately be a fruitless exercise.

If there were a plaintiff's fund, I’d contribute to it. Like many, I’ve often been incensed by the drive-by attacks you see every day on Twitter, the blogosphere and elsewhere – trolls making harmful, unsubstantiated claims without fear of reprisal. Like a virus, those rumours get picked up by others who pass them on to their friends and followers who pass them on to theirs. Pretty soon, people from coast to coast have heard about something that may be a complete fabrication.

The Burke-Mae story is a classic example. Who knows how it started, but once it got traction on some social media sites, it took off and soon became gospel. It was mentioned to me as a matter of fact by a highly respected Toronto sports journalist. I was asked about it by several people in the Vancouver media who’d also heard about it. Mr. Burke was having a baby with dear old Hazel Mae. Crazy.

And, as it turns out, a complete lie.

I sincerely hope that if there are people who are deemed to have spread this invention over the Internet that they are brought to justice. I hope they pay a hefty price, too, to show others that our reputations are all we have. In that sense, they are priceless. And when you maliciously set out to damage or destroy someone’s name, there should be a heavy cost. The anonymity the Internet can provide shouldn’t offer protection from the legal remedies that flow from wrongful actions.

We need to rip the masks off these rogues who sit before their computers at all hours conjuring up the next harmful thing they can say about a person. We deserve to know who they are, and they need to feel ashamed for what they’ve done.

Only when there are consequences for this type of behaviour will we have any hope of stopping it.

Follow on Twitter: @garymasonglobe

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