Australian defamation law gives a person the right to sue in relation to the publication of a defamatory matter. In bringing a defamation action, a plaintiff must meet the essential elements of a cause of action, one of which is ‘publication’.
Once the essential elements of defamation are made against a defendant, the defendant will be liable for defamation subject to the application of any defences. A number of defences are available both at common law and statutorily, and for organisations with social media websites or webpages which invite or attract comments, the defence of ‘innocent dissemination’ is an important one. The defence of innocent dissemination will be made out and liability avoided by a defendant where:
In Voller, the High Court of Australia upheld the findings of the Supreme Court of New South Wales and the New South Wales Court of Appeal on the question of whether the ‘publication’ element of the defamation was met in respect of Facebook comments posted by third-party users on the Facebook pages of the three media organisations involved in the proceedings.
Dylan Voller (whose experience while detained at a youth detention centre had been the subject of significant media attention) commenced legal proceedings against three large Australian media organisations who had posted links to various news articles concerning Mr Voller on their media organisation Facebook pages. These posts attracted ‘trolling’ comments from third-party Facebook users (i.e. the general public) that Mr Voller alleged gave rise to defamatory imputations of and concerning him, prompting him to commence defamation proceedings against the media organisations.
At first instance and on appeal by the media organisations, the Supreme Court of New South Wales, the New South Wales Court of Appeal and, ultimately, the High Court of Australia all held that the media organisations that administered the Facebook pages had ‘published’ the trolling comments (by encouraging and assisting their publication). Those organisations could therefore potentially be liable for defamation if the imputations pleaded by Mr Voller were found to be capable of arising and be defamatory of him.
Justices Gageler and Gordon of the High Court referred to the long-standing principle from Webb v Bloch2 that, generally, every person who contributes to a publication can be held liable (e.g. in the case of a defamatory newspaper article, the journalist, editor, publisher, printer, distributor, etc). Their Honours acknowledged, however, that the advent of the internet has resulted in:
The High Court also confirmed that a person can participate as a publisher even without intending to or knowing that they are publishing defamatory material. In other words, a person can accidentally be a publisher of defamatory material.
One consequence of the Voller decision was that administrators of Facebook (or other social media) pages on which third parties can post comments could now be liable for the publication of defamatory matter contained in those comments. Some Australian organisations (particularly media organisations) disabled or re-configured certain functionality on their social media pages as a result to prevent accidental publication of defamatory material.
Following a process of defamation law reform, with the intention that the reforms would be applied uniformly across the defamation legislation in each Australian State and Territory, on 1 July 2021 new legislative amendments came into effect in New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland, South Australia and the Australian Capital Territory. Tasmania followed on 12 November 2021, while Western Australia and the Northern Territory have not yet enacted the amendments.
One of the outcomes of the abovementioned law reform, is that, at least in the States and Territories where the amendments are now in force, defamation proceedings cannot be commenced unless a concerns notice has been given to the prospective defendant. For social media providers, a plaintiff who takes issue with an alleged defamatory comment on a social media page must first give the administrator of that social media page a concerns notice to communicate their concern before commencing legal proceedings. This gives the administrator an opportunity to remedy the concern first (e.g. apologise and perhaps remove the offending comment). On a practical level, this reduces the administrator’s potential exposure to legal proceedings.
Further, additional law reform is potentially on the horizon with the Social Media (Basic Expectations and Defamation) Bill 2021 (Basic Expectations & Defamation Bill), introduced into Federal Parliament on 25 October 2021 and, as foreshadowed by Prime Minister Scott Morrison in November 2021, the Social Media (Anti-Trolling) Bill 2022 (Anti-Trolling Bill) introduced on 10 February 2022.
If passed into law, the Basic Expectations & Defamation Bill will:
The Anti-Trolling Bill, if passed, will:
These changes not only aim to protect social media page administrators from standing in the firing line for comments posted on their social media pages by trolls – they also make it easier for those defamed by such comments to identify the trolls responsible for the comments and institute defamation proceedings against them.
If enacted, the Anti-Trolling Bill will allow organisations with a social media presence to have at least some preliminary protections against liability for defamatory third-party comments posted on their social media pages. However, to help foster safe online spaces for customers and community members, administrators should continue to observe certain practices with respect to page upkeep. This includes employing moderation functionality (e.g. content filters), avoiding the posting of provocative content (particularly about a specific person) that might invite unsavoury comments in reply and actively monitoring social media pages for poor online behaviour.
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