Facebook users should monitor their posted comments to avoid potential liablity for a defamation claim
Social media platforms do not have immunity from the severe consequences associated with defamation litigation. Making derogatory statements or levying false accusations against individuals can result in a Facebook users’ liability for someone else’s comments on their post. There is significant legal precedent to this effect set by the case of Rodgers & Anor v Gooding  QDC 115 and the High Court ruling in Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd v Voller; Nationwide News Pty Limited v Voller; Australian News Channel Pty Ltd v Voller  HCA 27.
What is defamation?
Defamation is the distribution of a false statement, misrepresented as a fact, which results in harm to an individual’s reputation. Such defamatory statements may include allegations of criminal misconduct, criticisms on professional competence, or specific sexual impropriety. It is imperative to recognise not every disparaging statement posted online, targeting oneself or one’s business, necessarily constitutes actionable defamation.
Nonetheless, it is always a good idea to keep a record of the potentially defamatory material. Take a screenshot so you can retrieve this evidence at a later date, if necessary.
An aggrieved party must be able to establish their reputation has been tarnished by an unfounded statement. See examples of this in the case studies below.
Is defamation a crime?
Laws regarding defamation are civil, not criminal.
Without the assistance of the police, disputes regarding defamation are settled by individuals through the court system. If a defamation claim is successful, the defendant is neither imprisoned nor given a criminal record. The typical outcome involves the defendant being liable to compensate the plaintiff for any damages incurred, in addition to shouldering a portion of the legal expenses incurred during the litigation process.
Damages for defamation are determined by the specifics of the case. In Australia, losses may total anywhere from a thousand dollars to millions of dollars. A greater award is more likely where the publishing of defamatory material caused significant damage to a plaintiff, such as financial loss or personal hardship. Such damage ought to be substantiated with evidence.
Case Study 1 – Fairfax Media Publications Pty Ltd v Voller; Nationwide News Pty Limited v Voller; Australian News Channel Pty Ltd v Voller  HCA 27
Dylan Voller was already a divisive figure in Australia before the unsettling, violent, and untrue comments against him circulated Facebook. Prior to these accusations, Mr. Voller had gained notoriety in the wake of a 2016 television exposé highlighting the maltreatment of juvenile detainees within the nation’s penal system, an exposé that featured an image of the 17-year-old Voller hooded and immobilized by prison guards, evoking comparisons to the inmates of Abu Ghraib in Iraq. The shocking image garnered widespread attention, prompting a national inquiry.
Major Australian news organisations carried pieces about the probe to their Facebook sites, where some commenters criticised Mr. Voller. Some made false claims, such as that Mr. Voller had assaulted a Salvation Army volunteer with a fire extinguisher and rendered him blind in the process.
Mr. Voller filed a claim against three news organisations, claiming that by allowing the remarks on their Facebook pages they were defaming him instead of engaging the commenters head-on.
Importantly, he didn’t request they remove the comments before bringing legal action, thereby saying they need to be held accountable for remarks they might not even be aware of.
The High Court’s decision affirmed for the purposes of defamation law, people who own Facebook pages or other online forums where they permit and promote public interaction are, prima facie, accountable for any defamatory content uploaded to those pages by third parties.
Case Study 2 – Rodgers & Anor v Gooding  QDC 115
In June 2022, the plaintiffs sued neighbour, Zoe Gooding, for labelling the de facto couple as paedophiles on a Facebook community page.
The defendant and sole publisher, published a post on a crime alert community page, and subsequently commented twice in that post thread. Even after deleting the post and making excuses they were hacked, these posts were recirculated.
Defamatory posts and comments through social media are not only seen by community members but able to be screenshotted, replicated and republished. The plaintiffs had many social, psychological and occupational impacts from this defamation.
The court found the defendant liable to pay each plaintiff $100,000 in compensatory damages and $40,000 in aggravated damages.
These above cases highlight the growing problem of people being unaware that they are legally responsible for what they post online and the detrimental causes of defamation to individuals’ lives.
Defamation can be a complicated legal matter. At Greenhalgh Pickard, we have experience representing clients in both sides of defamation cases. If you think you may be facing a defamation case or want to mount a defence, call our experienced team today.
The information contained in this article is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to provide legal advice or substitute for the advice of a professional. This information does not consider your personal circumstances and may not reflect the most current legal developments. Should you need advice, please contact our firm for targeted information relating to personal your situation.