Ethics and governance | Locale Learning

Councillors and social media – beware of defamation risks

by | 21 September, 2021

Previously, we have written about the potential perils of councillors being online including the risk of defamation. Since then, there have been significant developments in this space. This includes the recent High Court decision ruling that media companies are liable for any comments from the general public on posts they put on Facebook. In this article, we unpack what this means for elected representatives.

The Voller decision

First, a bit more about the High Court decision.

As the ABC reported, the case involves some of the biggest media organisations in Australia. The issue arose after Dylan Voller claimed he had been defamed by comments under Facebook posts by The Australian and The Sydney Morning Herald.

In a nutshell, Voller commenced defamation proceedings against the media organisations for these comments. A legal argument then arose whether the organisations could be considered publishers in the circumstances. The key issue was the content was written by members of the general public not the newspapers.

The High Court answered this legal question in the affirmative. The media organisations are legally responsible for the comments even though they did not write them. This is because they facilitated the comments being posted.

This is a significant decision in the social media landscape. Its implications are far-reaching.

New defamation risks for councillors

As we explained in our earlier article, councillors already face defamation risks online. This includes being personally liable for their comments and posts. For example, by making defamatory comments about another person online or commenting on someone else’s defamatory post.

Now councillors may also be liable for defamatory comments made by the general public on Facebook pages which they administer. This is a significant risk that needs to be managed.  In short, councillors who want an active social media presence must also step up to moderate conservations they are facilitating online.

Minimising defamation risks

Councillors can follow some simple guidelines to minimise defamation risks online. This includes being respectful, accurate and open-minded. If a councillor administers a Facebook page on community issues, then they should also:

  • have clear guidelines in place for engagement on the page (for example, no defamatory comments or posts)
  • regularly moderate the page for content that contravenes these guidelines
  • actively remove content that breaches the guidelines or where requested to do
  • turn off comments on the post where appropriate

To support councillors in this space, we offer an online masterclass on the ethical and effective use of social media. This masterclass covers the potential pitfalls of social media from the perspective of a local councillor and shares practical strategies to minimise these risks.

Social media masterclass 

For more information about this masterclass contact:

Emma Broomfield, Founder & Chief Educator

E   contact@localelearning.com.au

T   0421 180 881

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