Media responsibility for Facebook comments

I somehow missed this story:
A judge has retired to consider his verdict in a landmark defamation case, brought by former youth detainee Dylan Voller against three media organisations over comments made by members of the public on Facebook.

Mr Voller, whose mistreatment in detention was examined by a Royal Commission, sued the organisations in the NSW Supreme Court over a series of comments made under Facebook posts by the Sydney Morning Herald, the Australian, the Centralian Advocate, Sky News Australia and The Bolt Report in 2016 and 2017.

Mr Voller says the "false and defamatory" comments, made across 10 posts, wrongly carry a series of imputations including that he attacked a Salvation Army officer who visited him in detention and left him blind in one eye. He is seeking damages and costs.

The media organisations have denied they are responsible for the publication of the comments.

As the article explains, neither Mr Voller or his representatives contacted the organisations to ask for the defamatory comments to be removed. Mr Voller's barrister stated as the media would've known such comments were likely, not filtering them was negligence. And that it would be "difficult and expensive" to track down individual commenters.

I read an opinion piece (behind a paywall, sorry) that suggested a dead loss for Voller, while adding some interesting information about the argument:
The media companies argued they can’t control the comments and, in fact, on Facebook you can’t even shut the comments down. From their view, the suggestion that they have to read and censor every comment is absurd.

Voller’s side countered this; pointing out you can set up censorship rules on Facebook comments and screen out offensive words, for example. You could technically set the filter to reject words like “as”, “is” or “the”, so that all comments would be rejected. The thinking goes: since the media isn’t technologically helpless, it’s their positive choice to let the comments in, and they should pay the legal price for the risk they’ve chosen to take.

Thoughts? I'm having trouble seeing the validity, honestly.

Could his legal team be doing this for a reason other than winning? They clearly believe it is worth pursuing.

Comments

  • I am not a lawyer. I think these things are tricky and more than one media organisation has got into trouble for having unmoderated comments below stories.

    The difference here is that it is on Facebook.

    On the one had, I suppose, there is the argument that the platform and publication cannot police comments.

    On the other, imagine being a person who is reading defamatory things being said with no way to correct them.

    I suspect the solution will have to be that comments get turned off unless the publication invests in moderators.
  • Amanda B ReckondwythAmanda B Reckondwyth Mystery Worship Editor
    "Difficult and expensive to track down individual commenters?" Um, "The People of the State of New South Wales, to the Proprietors and Officers of Facebook, Greetings. You are hereby compelled, under pain of contempt of court, to disclose the names . . ."
  • Facebook doesn't have the Ship's 10 commandments. It probably should have something.
  • "Difficult and expensive to track down individual commenters?" Um, "The People of the State of New South Wales, to the Proprietors and Officers of Facebook, Greetings. You are hereby compelled, under pain of contempt of court, to disclose the names . . ."

    ...but what you get is a name and email address that the facebook account holder supplied. That doesn't help you much. You'd then need to do something like get a list of ip addresses that have routinely logged in to the facebook account, and go after the ISP to link an ip address to a particular customer. And then you get a warrant to grab the customer's computer and link it to the facebook account.
  • CrœsosCrœsos Shipmate
    "Difficult and expensive to track down individual commenters?" Um, "The People of the State of New South Wales, to the Proprietors and Officers of Facebook, Greetings. You are hereby compelled, under pain of contempt of court, to disclose the names . . ."

    ...but what you get is a name and email address that the facebook account holder supplied. That doesn't help you much. You'd then need to do something like get a list of ip addresses that have routinely logged in to the facebook account, and go after the ISP to link an ip address to a particular customer. And then you get a warrant to grab the customer's computer and link it to the facebook account.

    Facebook claims it has a "real-name policy", so theoretically that information is either already available or the Facebook account is invalid for not conforming to Facebook policy.
  • mousethiefmousethief Shipmate
    edited February 12
    Facebook polices comments all the time. I have been logged out for a comment I made (it TOLD ME that -- I am not leaping to conclusions). Friends have been put on involuntary shore leave (so to speak) from Facebook for their comments. Don't tell me FB doesn't monitor and police comments.
  • Dave WDave W Shipmate
    edited February 12
    But Voller isn’t suing FB, he’s suing the media organizations whose posts attracted the comments to which he objects.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    I can't see how he has any chance at all of getting up.
  • PigletPiglet All Saints Host
    Can't the newspapers disable commenting on their sites? I'm sure I've seen "comment on this subject is now closed" and "comment deleted" in the replies sections of newspaper articles, although obviously in the latter case we can't know why a comment was deleted if it's no longer there.

    If Mr. Voller's point is that the papers should have deleted the offending posts, I'm half inclined to agree with him: it's what we'd do on the Ship if we detected even a whiff of defamation or libel. Why should newspapers be any different?

    IANAL, YMMV, etc.
  • I think maybe what's happened is that the newspaper allows comments immediately below their articles from Facebook users. So viewers to their website see the comments although they are actually hosted by Facebook.
  • Crœsos wrote: »
    Facebook claims it has a "real-name policy", so theoretically that information is either already available or the Facebook account is invalid for not conforming to Facebook policy.

    Guess which one of these is actually true.

    Facebook's real name policy means that if someone complains that your name isn't Dong Hung Lo, they ask for id or something. But with no complaint, they've got nothing.

  • RossweisseRossweisse Shipmate, 8th Day Host
    Piglet wrote: »
    Can't the newspapers disable commenting on their sites? I'm sure I've seen "comment on this subject is now closed" and "comment deleted" in the replies sections of newspaper articles, although obviously in the latter case we can't know why a comment was deleted if it's no longer there. ...
    Yes, they can and sometimes do. The problem is that TPTB labor under the misapprehension that allowing trolls to spew vitriol all over comment pages somehow helps to build reader engagement. It takes vigilance to keep that from happening.

    (If a comment has been deleted, you can be pretty sure that it was insulting at best and vile at worst.)


  • Gee D wrote: »
    I can't see how he has any chance at all of getting up.

    We don't often agree, but we do on this. Right or wrong, I can't see him winning.
  • Good to see there is another Crikey reader here, Climacus. I recognise the quote. Too many of us down here have our news limited by News Limited.
  • I may have misread the story, but I thought that this was a complaint relating to comments on Facebook to stories posted by the named papers, rather than comments on their own sites.

    As a poor analogy, if someone posts something defamatory or libelous on these boards a host or admin will rapidly delete it and there may be action taken against the person who posted it. Occasionally Simon will put an article on the magazine here and share that on Facebook. As an admin on these boards I don't have the ability to delete a post on Facebook, nor even say anything of a formal nature on it (eg: citing Commandment 7) since we have no official oversight on Facebook.
  • Could his legal team be doing this for a reason other than winning? They clearly believe it is worth pursuing.

    Lawyers interested in advancing particular causes think about doing this as often as they order a latte. In industrial and employment law in particular, plaintiff lawyers will take the right matter to court because they not only want it to win, but they judge that it will expand the scope of their work. I think even Tony Abbott did it when he was at the Bar - a case in the NT springs to mind but the name eludes me. Was it about an abattoir, or is that just a play on his name?

    I have no idea about how the case will go, and I'm happy to go with the feelings of those more experienced than me, who struggle to find reasons why it might win. Litigation-led law reform is a game for the brave and the foolish.

    Voller is a cause celeb. I might have done it no win no fee and cop the disbursements if I got a brief who'd do the same, but I wouldn't back a loser. Court is too effing stressful, even for a young bloke like Voller who has seen the inside of a few too many in his short and tortured life.
  • Given Tony Abbott was never a lawyer, I can only assume you mean "Bar" as in place that serves drinks?
  • Good to see there is another Crikey reader here, Climacus. I recognise the quote. Too many of us down here have our news limited by News Limited.

    Indeed. I think it good to support trustworthy media. Crikey also are investing in more journalists and in-depth reporting, so I am happy to remain a subscriber.


    I need to look into the reach of media organisations on Facebook, and what sort of benefits (if it can be quantified) it brings. I feel, perhaps ignorantly, it may be good to be able to turn off responses on certain news posts, or perhaps all. But I doubt that is in Facebook's interest.
  • Legal action may be made to make a point. Understanding that money wanted from who you're suing is listed in legal documents filed to launch a suit. It can be useful to have procedures such as "mandatory mediation" when the other party has refused to talk to you. It's also nice when the rules to the mediation are that lawyers aren't allowed to speak.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    Simon Toad wrote: »
    Could his legal team be doing this for a reason other than winning? They clearly believe it is worth pursuing.

    Lawyers interested in advancing particular causes think about doing this as often as they order a latte. In industrial and employment law in particular, plaintiff lawyers will take the right matter to court because they not only want it to win, but they judge that it will expand the scope of their work. I think even Tony Abbott did it when he was at the Bar - a case in the NT springs to mind but the name eludes me. Was it about an abattoir, or is that just a play on his name?

    I am not sure who the solicitors are. When asked to take a brief, Molomby would have been bound by the cab rank rule.
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    Legal action may be made to make a point. Understanding that money wanted from who you're suing is listed in legal documents filed to launch a suit. It can be useful to have procedures such as "mandatory mediation" when the other party has refused to talk to you. It's also nice when the rules to the mediation are that lawyers aren't allowed to speak.

    Does that include bush lawyers?
  • BoogieBoogie Shipmate
    edited February 14
    @Climacus said -
    I need to look into the reach of media organisations on Facebook, and what sort of benefits (if it can be quantified) it brings. I feel, perhaps ignorantly, it may be good to be able to turn off responses on certain news posts, or perhaps all. But I doubt that is in Facebook's interest.

    I moderate (Admin) a Facebook group - you can turn off commenting and block people if necessary.

    My group is for Guide Dog owners, volunteers and puppy raisers. Most comments are fair and innocuous - but there is the occasional spat where moderation is required. There are just short of 5000 people in my group.
  • Thanks Boogie -- much appreciated.
  • I'm also an administrator on a FB group, I've never had any need to find out what sort of moderation functions I have access to. But, the groups I'm in are restricted in who can see what's shared and post comments. I've not come across newspapers with FB groups like that, almost by definition the papers want their stories to be accessible to all. At one end of the spectrum are papers with their comments section on their own system, which function as "letters pages" and the papers carry all the responsibilities of "publishing" that go with that. At the other end, we can all read a newspaper article, share a link on Facebook and comment as we want and the paper may not even know that conversation is happening; would you consider a newspaper is responsible to a conversation in the pub that's triggered by something they published? Presumably the complaint in the OP relates to papers with their own FB account sharing their own stories which then accumulate comments, and I know that FB allows people to delete comments on something they have shared which then gives the paper an option to moderate comments to an extent.
  • I'm an Admin on two Facebook pages.

    I'm one of several admins on our church FB page and I'm not aware of any problems there.

    I'm also an Admin of a women's history FB page. It is aimed at people who are interested in history generally. The posts are mostly "centenary of the birth of" or "centenary of the death of" type posts. At least once a fortnight we get a man messaging under the impression that we are running a dating site. We also get comments which have to be deleted. Nothing obscene so far, but a recent post about a public lecture delivered on the centenary of... garnered favourable comments about the appearance of the young female academic who delivered the lecture. I deleted them. Fast.

    I don't understand the mindset of anyone who looks at our FB page and thinks that it is some sort of a hook-up site, and I resent having to check every notification quickly in case it is another bloody man with literacy issues.
  • Is this case somehow a proxy for the question of whether Facebook is a platform or a publisher?
  • Gee DGee D Shipmate
    I've had very little to do with defamation law, but my understanding is that publication is part of the cause of action. That can take to form of my writing a letter to X about Y, or a newspaper splashing headlines. What is interesting here is that the claim by the plaintiff seems to be not that the newspaper defendant published anything defamatory but rather that what the newspaper did publish inspired a series of defamatory publications by others on Facebook. We'll have to wait and see the judgment for more detail.
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