ABC News Interviews Bill Potts on the Costly Dangers of Defamatory Social Media Posts
The ABC has recently published an article in relation to a Queensland woman who was ordered to pay $279,000 in damages to a couple she defamed in a Facebook group. The matter was heard in the District Court in Townsville and the judgement was handed down on Friday 23 June 2023.
The alleged post was only online for merely 90 minutes before it was taken down, and the publication alleged improper conduct towards a six-year-old child, and was ruled by Judge Coker as being “entirely improper, unjustifiable and lacking in bona fides where the defendant knew that the imputations contained within the post were false”.
It was reported by ABC that Ms Gooding’s defence included the assertion that her Facebook account had been hacked, which Judge Coker ruled was “demonstrably false”.
Mr Bill Potts of Potts Lawyers told ABC Radio Brisbane that “Words are weapons and the way in which these weapons of mass destruction [strike] — destruction to people’s wellbeing, their livelihood, their very reputation — is through the internet,” and that “$280,000 may seem an awful lot but I suspect we’re going to see a lot more of these types of judgements as time goes by.”
Mr Potts added that he has noticed a rise in defamation cases involving comments made over the internet during his 42 years of legal work.
The Court heard that as a result of the defamatory statements, there have been serious consequences to both the first and second plaintiffs, who each sought $100,000 in compensation.
The Court confirmed that the award of damages in defamation matters served three purposes:
(a) provide consolation for the personal distress and hurt caused to the person defamed;
(b) reparation for the harm done to those persons both personally and to their business reputation; and
(c) to provide vindication of their reputations.
The Court also reaffirmed the notion set out in the case of Grattan v Porter  QDC 202, that falsely accusing someone of being a paedophile is recognised as one of the worst possible things that can be said about a person.
The Court also considered the grapevine effect, which was more recently articulated in the case of O’Reilly v Edgar  QSC 24, where Justice Bradley noted as follows:
The so called “grapevine” effect recognises that the dissemination of defamatory material is rarely confined to those to whom it is immediately published. The harm caused to reputation does not come to an end with the publication. Past observations that it is “impossible to track the scandal, to know what quarters the poison may reach” are apt to describe the effect of publication of defamatory matter on social media, where the defamation tends to spread very rapidly and might emerge “from its lurking place at some future date”, when again it has a “tendency to spread”.
Justice Coker added that the grapevine effect “is real and is exacerbated by the recent developments in technology” and addressed the evidence presented by the Plaintiffs which demonstrated that the grapevine effect was at play.
Ultimately, in considering these principles, Justice Coker ruled that it was appropriate that compensatory damages be fixed in the sum of $100,000 for each plaintiff. With respect to the aggravated damages of $50,000 sought by both plaintiffs, the first plaintiff was awarded $25,000 in aggravated damages whilst the second plaintiff was awarded $40,000 in aggravated damages.
Justice Coker emphasised that these further damages were warranted where the conduct is “unjustifiable, improper or lacking in bona fides” including where there is “a failure to apologise […] up until the time of the verdict”.
The case serves as a reminder that social media publications which are defamatory in nature, can have serious ramifications even if only being posted for a short period of time. If early legal advice is sought on how to appropriately defend these allegations, Court proceedings can often be avoided.
Potts Lawyers are experienced in assisting both Plaintiffs and Defendants in defamation disputes. If you have been defamed on social media or are facing allegations of publishing defamatory publications on social media.