Is Social Media A Safe Place To Defame People?

With the rise of social media, it is now considerably easier for ordinary people to publish their own content for the world to see, a similar prospect to that of ‘professional’ publication, but, without the stress of a team of editors checking every single detail for it to be passed and read by the world. With this being said, does this make social media a safer place to defame people?

What Is Defamation?

In order for an individual to be defamed, a published statement or a piece of information must damage or lower the reputation of somebody, or cause a person to be avoided, hated or ridiculed. The defamatory material must identify an individual and must be published by a third party. To protect individuals in the event of defamation Australia’s main legislation that governs it all is the Defamation Act (2005). 

There are two ways in which defamatory material can be published:

  1. Libel: Material that is permanently published.
  2. Slander: Material that is spoken or gestured.

Defamation is a civil law offence where victims are awarded monetary amounts (proportionate to the extent in which the victim’s reputation is injured) as a means of compensating those affected by the defamatory material.

Can You Defame Someone On Social Media?

Yes, you can absolutely defame somebody on social media, even though it is not a professional publication like an article from a popular news outlet would be. This is because both professionally made content and user made content function in the same way when it comes to being defamatory.

With the increasing rise in social media use in the modern age, in 2021 alone there are 2.80 billion monthly active users with 1.84 billion people visiting Facebook daily. Taking this into account, the nature of user generated publications (such as photo and video posts and mini blogs), provides people an extremely accessible platform where one can easily defame somebody, whether this be with or without malicious intent.

As a result of this accessibility, almost everybody who can afford a mobile device and an internet connection has the capability to say as they please whenever they please all without the necessary filtration of an editorial process that professionally constructed content would typically endure prior to publication.

Bruce Goldberg v Alice Voigt (2018):

A great example of how social media can be utilized to defame somebody can be seen within the case of Bruce Goldberg v Alice Voigt. In 2012 a woman named Bianca Havas created a closed, private Facebook Group titled “Rose Bay Community — Official Group Page” where residents of the affluent Sydney suburb could communicate and remain informed of events and changes within the area. However, some years later in November 2018, a woman named Alice Voight made a post within this closed group suggesting that a man by the name of Bruce Goldberg was a extremely dangerous threat toward women.

Ms Voight’s now deleted Facebook post contained the defamatory imputations alleging that Mr Goldberg was a “stalker and a danger to women.” She further stated that he is mentally unstable and likely to kill…” and that he is known to “enjoy bullying women” characterising Mr Goldberg in a rather negative manner, affirming her attempt to protect her community by exclaming I call you out Bruce! [this] isn’t slander if it’s true”. It becomes clear that Ms Voight had an intention to inform the local audience that Mr Goldberg should be feared and avoided when spotted in public.

How Did This Affect Mr Goldberg?

Ms Voight’s defamatory imputations, according to Mr Goldberg, saw many people “avoiding”, “whispering and pointing” at him while shopping, suggesting he was both ‘shocked and speechless’ when harassed on the street by members of the public. In taking the case to the NSW District Court, Goldberg expresses the extent to which the post had injured his reputation stating “I thought my reputation to be … totally damaged and my credibility down the tube and there was not much I could do about it.” There was no choice for Mr Goldberg but to sue Ms Voight as an attempt to retrieve his damaged reputation in his community, and Ms Voight needed a solid defence to back up her imputations.

What Are The Defences For Defamation?

When a person is sued for defamation, they are able to defend their statements beneath a myriad of legal grounds. However, the onus is on the person who has published the defamatory material to prove what they have said is not defamatory. This means the plaintiff does not have to prove that the defamatory material is false.

 In total there are eight defences to defamation that can be used, however, only two defences were used in the Bruce Goldberg v Alice Voigt case.

  1. Truth: This is the complete defence to defamation where publishing truth does not lower one’s reputation but more so places it at its correct level.
  1. Public Interest: Refers to the fair reporting of information that is of great interest to the general public. 

Why Should Ordinary People Care About Defamation?

The Defamation Act (2005) does not change depending on where the defamatory material is posted. Anybody whether you’re a professional journalist with an editorial team, or just an ordinary person with access to social media has the potential to defame somebody. This is why it is extremely important to make sure what we are saying is one hundred percent accurate, and completely true, even if it means doing a bit of research to make sure it is. Think about it like this, is it really worth risking thousands of dollars posting something you’re not completely sure of.

So What Happened In Court?

In confidently affirming that her imputations “isn’t slander if it’s true”, Ms Voight attempted to use the defence of truth to back her claims that Mr Goldberg is a dangerous individual. Due to her imputations centralising around informing her community of Mr Goldberg’s assumed violent tendencies, Ms Voight also used the defence of Public Interest as a means of highlighting her efforts to protect the women of the area.

Ms Voight further defended herself by suggesting that due to the post being published on a ‘closed, private group’, the readership would have been “very limited” with only 10 and 100 people having access to the post. However, Mr Goldberg suggested otherwise affirming that the readership of the post was “at least in the hundreds and fuelled chatter in the community.” Mr Goldberg’s defence also mentioned that as the creator and administrator of the Facebook group Ms Havas ignored her responsibility to moderate and remove any material that appeared to be defamatory, allowing Ms Voight to publish these imputations without any consequences.

In apologising to Mr Goldberg, Ms Voight offered to pay him $5000 in damages, However, despite her apology and the post being removed from the site, Ms Voight created a GoFundMe page and managed to raise $4,450 to cover her court fees. She followed this by making another post (now deleted) on her personal facebook page suggesting that she is a “very strong advocate for women” and that Australia’s deformation laws are “archaic” and are “not caught up with social media”. 

Mr Goldberg’s lawyer Barrie Goldsmith stated that Ms Voight’s comments  characterised him as a “danger to the women of Rose Bay, and that showed a ’blatant disregard’ for the proceedings by doubling down on her claims. As a result, District Court Judge Richard Weinstein ruled that Ms Voight was to pay Mr Goldberg $35,000 for bringing the plaintiff “into hatred, ridicule and contempt” and causing Mr Goldberg to “suffer loss and damage to his reputation and injury to his feelings.” 

One can say that this was a very expensive Facebook post.

So, Is Social Media A Safe Place To Defame Somebody?

Well, the answer is no. Although social media is indeed a less professional and evidently more accessible platform to publish content compared to a formal article written by a journalist, the ability to defame somebody and the consequences it brings is identical to that of a professional publication from an official news site. In suggesting that a ‘closed’ or ‘private’ Facebook group does not have equal reach to the general public like an news article would, this is simply not the case.

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