Australia's High Court Says Media Can Be Sued For Comments That Appear on Their Social Media Posts

CC0 / / Social media
Social media - Sputnik International, 1920, 08.09.2021
The ruling is likely to set a precedent for similar court cases in other countries and will likely lead to the introduction of new legislation that will regulate the work of social media companies across the globe.
Australia's High Court has ruled that media outlets are responsible for the content that appears in their social media posts and thus can be held liable for it. The court saga started in 2016, when local media platforms reported on the mistreatment of juvenile detainees, shocking Australian society.
The articles were shared on various social media platforms, where users commented on the issue. In 2017, a former juvenile detainee, Dylan Voller, whose case and pictures were featured in the coverage, sued five media outlets for defamatory statements made in the comments section to their posts on Facebook.

His legal team argued that the said media outlets allowed derogatory statements about Mr Voller to remain in the comments section, hence the outlets were responsible for the publication of those statements. The outlets, in turn, argued that they could not be blamed for the content that appears in their posts on social media. They maintained that the media could be held responsible only if they knew in advance about what comments internet users would make on their pages.

At the time, Facebook did not allow the hosts of social media pages to turn off comments on their posts.

In 2019, Australia's Supreme Court sided with Dylan Voller. The media then appealed to the country's High Court, which on Wednesday upheld the previous ruling. It said that by creating posts on social media the outlets "facilitated, encouraged, and thereby assisted the publication" of user comments.

Australian courts previously ruled that individuals and companies can be held liable for defamatory content that appears in their social media posts if they were aware of the disparaging statements and allowed them to remain.

Why Does the Ruling Matter?

Wednesday's ruling stems from the debate that has been raging in various countries for several years – should content providers on the internet, in this case social media companies, be treated as publishers or not. For a long time, authorities' answer was "no". In the United States, where social media giants first appeared, Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act, clearly states:

"No provider or user of an interactive computer service shall be treated as the publisher or speaker of any information provided by another information content provider".

This means that if a media outlet publishes an article, where it provides false or defamatory information on an individual, that person can sue them, but he or she can't file a lawsuit if the information on him or her appears on the platforms of a third party (Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, etc.) because social media companies are treated as providers not publishers.

Politicians around the world have argued to the contrary. Former US President Donald Trump, who has had tense relations with social media platforms, has accused them of silencing conservative voices and censoring information. Facebook and Twitter have repeatedly flagged posts by Donald Trump and his entourage as containing unreliable information, deleted them, and even suspended the Republican's accounts. Such actions, Trump has argued, qualifies social media companies as publishers.

Trump's battle with the social media giants intensified during the 2020 presidential campaign, when the former president accused Twitter and Facebook of limiting the spread of a New York Post exposé on Hunter Biden, the second son of Joe Biden. The article alleged that the elder Biden was involved in his son's business dealings overseas during his time as vice president, which the newspaper said might be interpreted as a conflict of interest.

Trump claimed the article would have had a profound impact on the presidential race had social media not "silenced" it.

Earlier this year, Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey admitted that the company made a "total mistake" when it prohibited its users from sharing the New York Post's exposé on its platform.
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