RSHAWSocial media including Twitter and Facebook has facilitated a feeding frenzy for defamation and cyber bullying lawyers, with Australia leading the charge.

Former Orange High School student Andrew Farley posted a defamatory tweet about his music teacher. It cost him $105,000 in damages in the first full trial in Australia – the flood gates are open and there will be many more court actions.

This article does not address cyber bullying cases like media personality Charlotte Dawson’s recent death – attributed in part to cyberbullying and plain nasty ‘trolls’ telling her to kill herself, affecting her somewhat well hidden depressive tendencies.

It’s about defamation via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram – any social media that allows others to follow and view a person’s thoughts, words and deeds – that turns a person into a ‘publisher’ without ANY protection afforded to ‘real’ publishers that have editors to check, lawyers to approve, and massive insurance policies to pay out on occasion.

Regardless of which social media is used the same defamation law principals apply – amateur ‘publishers’ will be held accountable for defamatory comments. There is no defence of ‘innocent dissemination’ or ‘public interest’ and the aggrieved party can easily commence civil court action accessing an abundance of low or no cost, ‘no-win, no fee’ lawyers.

But it goes further – other people who retweet defamatory comments, or link to a Facebook page, or forward emails are also deemed publishers and can face civil charges. It is not a defence to say that it was passed on in the public interest – it could have added to the damages quantum.

Even the various offices of fair trading have inadvertently become part of the issue with impending false testimonial laws. The ‘author’ must be able to substantiate their comments, a.k.a. testimonials (positive or negative) must be true. This is important if someone is commenting on a company or product.

What this means for the meetings industry is that conference and event attendees must be careful about what they tweet or retweet – there are no defences for defamation if you are wrong!

Organisers must monitor live feeds – preferably delaying them long enough to act as censor removing suspect tweets. The moderator should have a basic knowledge of media law and what constitutes defamation or false testimonial. Live tweeting is dangerous!

If an event has a blog and comments feedback facility (which ideally should record the person’s IP address) this too must be monitored – not 24×7 but during typical business hours, and offensive comments must be removed promptly.

What constitutes offensive? Anything that the target feels aggrieved about! Recent fines for tardy removal have been up to $200,000 per day.

Finally, remember that aside from defamation laws it is a Commonwealth offense to ‘use a carriage service to menace, harass or cause offense’ and social media falls under this net – the penalty is three years’ jail.

Never make comments personal.