Facebook ruling risks everything we hold dear
RENDEZVIEW: It isn't just big media companies who are finding themselves liable for the defamatory comments of random strangers, it's all of us, and it goes to the very heart of our right to free speech, writes Miranda Devine.
It's you. It's every single person who uses Facebook. This is a serious problem.
Justice Stephen Rothman's ruling in the NSW Supreme Court last month in the case of Dylan Voller versus three media companies will lead to a savage erosion of free speech.
Voller was a former inmate of a Northern Territory youth detention centre who became famous after an ABC story about his mistreatment. He sued for defamation over reader comments made about him under Facebook posts by The Sydney Morning Herald, The Australian, the Centralian Advocate, Sky News Australia and The Bolt Report over third party comments made about him in 2016 and 2017 on the media organisations' Facebook pages.
The judge ruled that the media companies are responsible for defamatory comments on Facebook, even though they have no control over them before they are posted, made by third parties.
Just as disturbing is the defamation case settled last month against anti-Safe Schools mummy blogger Marijke Rancie for comments published under one of her Facebook posts.
That reportedly cost the suburban Melbourne mother-of-four $100,000 in a settlement she can ill afford, and would have cost her twice as much in legal fees if the Australian Christian Lobby hadn't come to her rescue.
Yet the ABC's Paul Barry and various members of the media woke-erati think it's perfectly reasonable. As far as Barry is concerned, what he calls the "Outrage Media" in the Voller case got what's coming to them.
"If you let people spread defamatory lies on your public Facebook page, you may have to pay the price," he says.
Except Facebook doesn't give users the tools to moderate comments before they are published, other than through some jerry-rigged hack that is not guaranteed to work.
The only way to ensure you aren't sued for comments over which you have no control is not to use Facebook at all.
Guardian Australia legal editor Richard Ackland seemed almost pleased, writing, "Media organisations now are on notice as to their hip-pocket liability for the mean, ignorant, beastly, defamatory muck that is frequently peddled by readers in response to story items posted on their associated Facebook pages."
"From now on [defamation] lawyers will be cherrypicking the Facebook comments associated with mainstream media news stories, looking for nuggets of gold."
He's right on that score at least.
The fact is conservatives will be the ones getting stung because activists trawling through Facebook comments looking for a gotcha are almost entirely of the identitarian left, obsessively motivated to destroy dissenting opinion.
To them, "hate speech" is anything they don't agree with. Anyone who proffers a contrary opinion is not just wrong, but evil.
Take mummy blogger Rancie.
In 2017, her 13-year-old son came home from school and told her he had been "crafting vaginas" in class. When she quizzed him he said his friends in year 8 at his Victorian public school also had been taught "how to use sex toys".
When she went to see the principal, she found the situation was worse than she had imagined. She went home, sat on her back deck and unloaded in a video on her phone.
"It was a 25-minute rant on my frustration on what my kids were being exposed to," she said yesterday.
She posted the video on Facebook for her 300 followers, but the video went viral.
"I had 1.1 million views by the end of the night. I didn't realise how big a deal it was at the time."
Her inbox filled up and thousands of people left comments. Parents told her their concerns with the impact gender fluidity propaganda was having on their children.
"Teachers were in my inbox saying 'we can't go public, but here's the curriculum'. It was just all this information and I felt a responsibility to get it out. It wasn't just Australia. It was Peru, New Zealand, America, Canada, all over the place."
Before she knew it, her "Political Posting Mumma" page had 19,000 followers, and she was writing five or six posts a day, each easily attracting 1000 comments.
Then 18 months ago she wrote a negative post about a woman who worked with the Minus-18 LGBTQI youth site linked to Safe Schools.
The woman sued for defamation, alleging comments posted underneath Rancie's Facebook post defamed her by suggesting she was "a sick and twisted person who organises events for high school aged children at which she engages in and condones sexually suggestive conduct while nude or semi-nude".
The first Rancie knew about the suspect comments was when she received a legal letter six months after the Facebook post was published.
Rancie publicly apologised and removed the offending comments, but had to pay $100,000 out of court to end the defamation action against her.
"I didn't realise I was responsible for other people's comments," she said.
Neither did anyone else.
The media organisations are planning to appeal the Voller decision, and NSW is looking at reforming the law, but until then we're all at risk.
As for Rancie, she's leaving Facebook altogether. Free speech chilled for good.
A note to readers: My next column will come to you from New York, where I will be covering the 2020 US presidential election for the next 18 months. Together, we will have a front-row seat in what will be the most momentous election of my lifetime. Of course, I'll keep writing about our local issues, too, so I will rely more than ever on your feedback and suggestions. Email me on email@example.com and let's enjoy this adventure together.