Editorial: Build bridges online, don’t feed the trolls

Think defamation law applies only to journalists? Think again.

The law applies to all forms of communication by the public, from a published article to a Facebook comment, and its author. Defamation law exists to protect people’s reputations. If you post something that is false, you could be sued. 

That includes claims about people who are before a court. Comments denouncing them for a crime can turn out to be defamatory if there is not a guilty verdict. Such comments could also prejudice a jury trial, leading to police charging the social media user with contempt of court.

Think before you post

The number of people suing for defamatory statements that have been posted online is increasing. The Centre for Media Transition says digital defamation cases have risen from about 17 per cent of all defamation cases brought to court in 2007, to more than 53 per cent in 2017.

Take it down

If you have posted something defamatory on social media and been contacted by the person it names, take it down. That’s the advice of our in-house lawyer, Larina Alick, in a podcast on defamation, ‘Please Explain’. “Take it down and back down,” she says, because the financial and emotional implications of a court case can be catastrophic.

Case in point

As originally published by the Sydney Morning Herald, an argument between two doctors about abortion beliefs that resulted in Facebook posts in 2014 led to a court case costing hundreds of thousands of dollars.

Dr Roland von Marburg successfully sued Dr Pieter Mourik for a Facebook page Dr Mourik didn’t create, but was accused of influencing. On October 16 in 2014, a photo of Dr von Marburg was published and, according to a Supreme Court hearing, three people posted derogatory comments about Dr von Marburg beneath the picture. None of those comments was posted by Dr Mourik. Dr von Marburg sued for defamation. But he did not pursue the people who posted the arguably more damaging comments. He sued the young administrator of the Facebook page and Dr Mourik, whom he alleged directed the student or personally edited the page.

This case provides a timely reminder to Facebook administrators that they too can be held accountable for defamatory comments posted on their page.

This article is intended only as a guide to defamation law and not as legal advice.