Liable for Libel

June 2, 2011

Defamation and Social Networking Sites

Online Social Networking sites such as Facebook, Twitter and Myspace have seen a significant increase in popularity over the last decade, and today there are over 500 million active users of Facebook alone. These networking sites allow people to create profiles, connect with other users, to share photos and post comments. Despite the many positives associated with these sites, in some instances, they have been used to post defamatory material. Users need to be aware that they can be held liable for the content that they write and/or share.

The premise around which all defamation laws revolves is that harm or injury ought not to be done to the reputation of another which is unjustifiable, malicious or wrong. In 2002 the High Court case Dow Jones & Company Inc v Gutnick set a precedent for online defamation in an Australian Jurisdiction. Online media, it would appear, is no different from a phone call, a mobile phone text message, a radio signal or a television broadcast and it fits reasonably well into the definition of ‘electronic communication’ found in section 4 of The Defamation Act (Vic) 2005 as a means by which defamatory messages can be communicated. This definition also extends to social networking sites, and as such users must be sensitive as to how these messages will be viewed and interpreted by audiences who are sometimes not intended to view the material.

There has been a notable increase in Plaintiffs seeking compensation for online libel on social networking sites across the globe, particularly following the well known case of Applause Store Productions Ltd. & Anor v Raphael where a former friend was found liable for defamation on Facebook for creating a false account in the Plaintiff’s name that was damaging to his reputation. Since then, there have been several cases in Australia, including a Criminal Defamation charge of a South Australian man for comments made on Facebook about a police officer.

The message for users of social network is, although anyone can publish material, the laws that apply to traditional media will still apply.

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