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High Court rules media companies responsible for comments on their Facebook pages

The High Court has dismissed an appeal by some of Australia’s biggest media outlets – including the Sydney Morning Herald and the Australian, concluding that they are legally responsible as ‘publishers’ for third parties’ comments on their facebook pages.

This comes after a four-year battle between media outlets and Dylan Voller, a Northern Territory youth detainee whose experience in the Don Dale youth detention centre led to a 2016 royal commission.

The case may involve some of Australia’s biggest media organisations, but the consequences reach far beyond Australia’s newsrooms. If you’re the admin of your local community Facebook page; the local netball club, or your own small business, it will matter to you too.

Cannings Purple Director, Jamie Wilkinson gives us a quick recap.

Who is Dylan Voller?

Dylan Voller became headline news in 2016, with articles about him appearing on news Facebook pages managed by Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Centralian Advocate, Sky News Australia and The Bolt Report, among others. These articles encouraged thousands of comments by members of the public. Some of them were deemed defamatory by Mr Voller. 

Find out more about this case in a previous 268 article – Safeguard your business against defamatory content on social media’.

The ruling

Now, the High Court has given the green light to Dylan Voller to sue media outlets for defamation over comments on their Facebook pages. And in this decision, the court ordered the organisations to pay Mr Voller’s legal costs.

Whether particular comments actually defamed Mr Voller hasn’t been decided yet. But the court did rule that the media organisations were legally responsible for comments on their pages.

What does this mean for you?

The message from the High Court is that if a company wants a presence on social media, it’s also responsible for moderating the content made in response to its posts in a timely manner.

Our recommendations:

  • Before posting, assess the nature and subject matter of the content and be cautious not to publish content that could be seen as inviting controversial comments.
  • If you run a Facebook page, or indeed, any online space where commentary can be added by your users, you need to be in a position to moderate those comments in a timely manner. 
  • There are then two key approaches to moderating comments:
  1. Hiding: Monitor the comments as they are posted and ‘hide’ those that contain potentially problematic allegations. This will keep it hidden from everyone except the person who wrote the comment and their friends (meaning they won’t know that the comment is hidden).
  2. Filter: Facebook’s settings allow you to block certain words from appearing on your page. This means that comments containing the words would need to be ‘unhidden’ to appear publicly. This is the more proactive approach.

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If you would like more information on this evolving issue, Cannings Purple are here to help. Contact us.