Social media defamation cases surging in Australia

By @diplomatist10 on
People are silhouetted as they pose with mobile devices in front of a screen projected with a Facebook logo, in this picture illustration taken in Zenica October 29, 2014. Facebook Inc warned on Tuesday of a dramatic increase in spending in 2015 and projected a slowdown in revenue growth this quarter, slicing a tenth off its market value. Facebook shares fell 7.7 percent in premarket trading the day after the social network announced an increase in spending in 2015 and projected a slowdown in revenue growth this quarter. Reuters/Dado Ruvic

Facebook-related defamation lawsuits are surging in Australia, making them a vibrant source of income for many lawyers. Social media, which is transforming ordinary people into a "new class of publishers,” is also making many novices lagging in awareness about the legal ramifications of online posts into sitting ducks for defamation suits, noted Slater & Gordon Lawyers associate Jeremy Zimet.  

The lawyer noted that half of the defamation inquiries at Slater & Gordon in the past financial year had been about social media posts, with Facebook topping the list at 43 per cent. Twitter, Instagram, blogs and review websites were other sources of defamation and generating more work for lawyers.

“I expect that as a result of these types of cases, we will continue to receive more enquiries,” Zimet told Australian Financial Review. In the NSW District Court, actions concerning social media doubled from 31 in 2013 to 61 in 2014. According to the stats from Victorian Supreme Court, it heard 39 defamation cases in 2014, in which four were related to website publications such as blogs and two were about Facebook posts.

Huge compensation

Observers say the avalanche of defamation cases followed a case wherein a huge award of AU$105,000 was pronounced for a NSW school teacher who was defamed by a student on Twitter and Facebook. Similarly, a West Australian woman was asked to pay her former husband AU$12,500 for posting damaging allegations on Facebook.

Recently, Treasurer Joe Hockey was awarded AU$200,000 in damages on a case linked to Fairfax media’s Sydney Morning Herald and some tweets from The Age. Commenting on the spurt in defamation cases, Professor Andrew Kenyon of the University of Melbourne said changes in defamation laws are difficult to achieve as they require the consensus of the states and territories.

He said it was time to examine how electronic and social media publications were interpreted by the law. “Defamation is about free speech and reputation, the effect on reputation does not fit the traditional legal test," Kenyon said.

According to him, what reputation is and how it gets developed today is different from what it was a decade ago. If reputation is working differently, then defamation law should also change, he argued, reports ABC Net.

Be careful

“The greater the reach, the greater the risk,” was the reaction of  solicitor and RMIT lecturer Dr Mark Williams. According to him, the key change in defamation landscape over the past 20 years has been the potential for online posts to go viral. He noted that the potential for damages is higher because people have the capacity to reach more people. Williams said people who tweet or post defamatory statements are facing many of the same risks as a major media publisher. His advice to users of social media is – do not do or say things that you would not say or want printed on the front page of a major daily newspaper.

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