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5 things to know about social media defamation

in Social Media & the Law by Tim Finney on

Australia’s first social media defamation case proceeded to full trial recently, with a former student ordered to pay more than $100,000 in damages over a series of defamatory posts about a teacher at the school. Now that’s an expensive tweet!

It's also a reminder to the online community that defamation laws extend online; and it’s no surprise that we’re probably going to see more.

Rather than expanding the definition of defamation under Australian law, this case reminds us that defamation already extends to the internet, and it should be a wake up call for anyone using social media to be careful about what they post. A split second decision to share information through social media could be very expensive.

Social media is no different to other forms of publishing in terms of defamation, and the fact that social media can assist broadcasting it further adds risk.

When posting on Facebook or Twitter, take the newspaper test – think of yourself as an editor of a newspaper or media outlet, because you will be just as liable if you defame someone.

Here are five things you should know about social media defamation:

  1. In general terms, defamation occurs when a person intentionally spreads information about another person, group of people, or small company that damages their reputation, or can make others think less of them.
  2. Defamation is actionable regardless of the medium. A person can be defamed, for example, in print, through photos and on the internet.
  3. Defamation cases involving the internet and social media are relatively new, but the same principles apply.
  4. A person who did not create the defamatory material, but only shares it (for instance, by “retweeting” a tweet), can also be held found liable guilty of defamation.  
  5. There are several defences to defamation, including that the statement was true, or that it was an expression of an honest opinion. Consequently, you may be liable for defamation if you spread information which constitutes a hurtful and untrue statement of fact about another person.

What if I’m accused of social media defamation?

The best thing do you if you are accused of defamation is to take down the offending post, and offer an apology. If you’re lucky, the person will forgive you and you won’t end up in court.

With the rise of social media, ordinary citizens are becoming publishers and will be subjected to the same laws as newspapers and other news outlets.

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