It’s not exactly news that it’s important to be careful when posting on social media, especially when it comes to posting about other people or other businesses. It is, however, news that posting defamatory posts and comments on social media could cost individuals big time.
In the decision of Webster v Brewer (No 3)  FCA 1343, the Federal Court of Australia awarded $875,000 in favour of Nationals Member for Parliament Dr Anne Webster, her husband, and their not-for-profit organisation as a result of defamatory materials posted online by Karen Brewer. Ms Brewer posted a series of ‘vile’ and ‘heinous’ Facebook posts that linked Dr Webster to a secret criminal network of child abusers.
The Court considered the extent of the publication of the posts to be significant. The videos posted by Ms Brewer exceeded 1,000 views, and the published posts received more than 200 reactions, comments and shares. Given the population of Mildura is 54,000, the Court was left with little doubt that the posts had been widely published and were likely to have spread further throughout the local community.
It was determined by the court that the posts had a detrimental impact on the reputations of the Websters and Zoe Support and that the posts and videos had likely “been believed by a small but not insignificant segment of the Mildura community.”
In making the determination, Justice Gleeson noted that:
- the Court must consider the ‘grapevine effect’ and acknowledge that defamatory claims and materials can spread beyond the people to whom the materials are published;
- damages ought to be significant enough to convince an observer that the defamatory allegations are not true;
- damages must compensate for injured feelings, loss of self-esteem, and sense of indignity, particularly in circumstances where defamatory claims are particularly ‘vile’ and where a plaintiff has a particular reputation based on honesty and integrity;
- defamatory statements cannot be made about public figures solely because they are in the public sphere;
- the repetitive posting of the defamatory content was particularly relevant; and
- in circumstances such as this where the defamatory claims were particularly ‘vile’ or ‘heinous’, it could not be claimed that conduct was justifiable as a defence.
While it may go without saying that it is important not to post materials that are so obviously defamatory, Webster v Brewer (No 3) should serve as yet another warning to be careful before posting on social media. This case makes it clear that the Courts will award significant damages for serious, repetitive, and wholly baseless posts and comments that may damage another person’s reputation.
If you are seeking trusted legal regarding online defamation; talk to the Enterprise Legal Disputes team: