When sharing a Facebook post lands you in hot water — social media defamation risks explained - ABC News


Complaints to lawyers are on the rise amid the proliferation of social media. (Reuters: Dado Ruvic)

It's easier than you might think to get into legal trouble over defamatory comments on social media, according to Brisbane defamation lawyer Rowan Lyndon.

Mr Lyndon said defamatory social media matters made up most of his cases.

"Before, it was placed in the 'too-hard' basket, but people are taking social media posts more seriously now," Mr Lyndon said.

Social media and the risk of defamation gained media attention last week when Brisbane Broncos coach Anthony Siebold revealed he had hired lawyers to investigate allegedly slanderous online posts.

Seibold's lawyer, Dave Garratt, issued a statement saying the "matter will be reported to the Queensland Police Service and other appropriate authorities".

Anthony Seibold (centre) engaged lawyers who said they would report the defamation allegations to police.(AAP: Darren England)

University of Queensland law professor Kit Barker said a 2018 study found more than half of all defamation proceedings between 2013 and 2017 involved digital publications online.

He said the rise of social media meant more individuals rather than media outlets were being pursued in court for defamation.

"Individuals now have more direct control of what gets published online, taking out the traditional media editor," Professor Barker said.

He said this publishing power should not be taken lightly, as the consequences could be costly.

What constitutes a defamatory post?

Statements that have the potential to cause damage to a person's reputation and cause them reputational or economic harm can be deemed defamatory.

These include social media comments, posts, photos and even Google reviews.

If I didn’t write it, can I get in trouble for it?

Mr Lyndon said sharing someone else's post was no different to posting it yourself.

"Assuming someone other than the person defamed reads your post, you will be treated as a publisher and liable for any defamation that flows from publication," Mr Lyndon said.

Brisbane defamation lawyer Rowan Lyndon said most of his cases involved social media complaints.(Supplied: Rowan Lyndon)

Professor Barker said sharing the post could also mean additional repercussions for the author every time the post was shared.

"Currently, every time it is accessed and downloaded, it is regarded by the law as being published again, which means that a publisher can potentially be liable for an indeterminate period of time," he said.

What if I just 'like' a post?

On platforms such as Facebook, liking a post can bring it into the newsfeeds of your friends, even though they might not have seen the original post in the first place — causing more harm to the person being defamed.

Mr Lyndon said the same applied to comments on a post, especially if your comment reflected the post itself.

"If you comment on someone's post, you may be liable as if you posted it yourself if your comments approve of or adopt the post," Mr Lyndon said.

Am I liable for sharing with close friends?

Yes. Only one person needs to read your post for it to constitute defamation.

"Assuming at least one of your friends reads your post, you will be treated as a publisher and liable for any defamation that flows from publication," Mr Lyndon said.

What if I just delete my comment?

You can still be held accountable after a post is deleted, provided at least one person saw it.

Former Canberra football CEO Heather Reid was awarded $180,000 in her case against a coach who defamed her on Facebook.(Twitter: @Reidyfour)

What about defamatory comments on my post?

Mr Lyndon said you could potentially be held liable if you were "inviting or encouraging comments on your post".

If you see defamatory comments on your post and don't delete them when you have the power to do so, you can also be held liable, he said.

What if I'm targeted by an anonymous profile?

Mr Lyndon said you could apply to have the identity of the person revealed in court.

"There was a case in Melbourne where a dentist sued for a defamatory Google review and the court ordered Google to reveal the identity of the person," he said.

Jail is even a possibility

Mr Lyndon said the risk of defaming someone on social media shouldn't be taken lightly.

"The most obvious one is you could end up embroiled in costly legal proceedings, it's a very expensive mistake to make," he said.

School principal Tracey Brose won her high-profile defamation case against parents.(ABC Gold Coast: Gemma Sapwell)

Earlier this year, parents who defamed Mt Tamborine school principal Tracey Brose on social media were ordered to pay $3,000 each in damages, as well as all of Ms Brose's legal bills — estimated to total $600,000.

Another three people settled their cases out of court prior to the lengthy and taxing trial, with Ms Brose receiving a total amount of $182,500 from them.

Mr Lyndon said there were also criminal offences that could apply.

"It could potentially land you in jail in the most extreme scenarios," he said.