Unsocial media: Facebook comments could spell trouble for not-for-profits

Posted on 27 Oct 2021

By Matthew Schulz, journalist, Our Community

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Not-for-profits are increasingly relying on social media to get their message out, but a recent court ruling has given organisations reason to pause before publishing.

Our Community legal partner Maddocks says that a recent High Court decision means not-for-profits may be treated as “publishers” of defamatory comments posted by third parties on their Facebook pages or other social platforms.

Many smaller organisations wanting to avoid trouble have taken pre-emptive action by deleting posts and comments in a move that has already silenced some of the social chatter.

The ABC reports that some administrators of Facebook sites are considering shutting their pages down, while politicians, councils and government agencies have disabled comments and experts warn of a “chilling” effect on public debate as many groups err on the side of caution.

In the meantime, Maddocks has advised organisations to take measures to avoid being made liable for defamation action from third party comments on their pages.

In short, Maddocks recommends that not-for-profits should take precautions when managing and publishing content on public social media pages, including:

  • considering the potential impact of any posts, including the likelihood of third-party users posting defamatory comments in reply; and
  • making use of the programming tools available on Facebook and other social media platforms to monitor and vet third-party comments before publishing, or turning off comments on posts.

The recent High Court decision was sparked by comments on articles written about former Northern Territory youth detainee Dylan Voller.

Mr Voller first came to public attention when shocking images emerged of him shackled to a chair in a “spit hood” in a case that sparked a royal commission into youth detention in the NT.

The court battle over whether the comments made about Mr Voller were defamatory continues, but the recent decision prompted US media giant CNN to disable its Facebook pages in Australia.

Maddocks has explained the reasoning for the decision in a new legal insight, saying “NFPs that operate public social media pages should exercise great care and diligence to vet, monitor, and control comments published on those pages, as they may be liable as a primary publisher for defamatory comments posted by third party users”.

The firm also said that not-for-profits should not assume they were not caught by the ruling simply because they were not commercial publishers, with one judge concluding “the fact that the media companies were pursuing their commercial and financial interests made no difference to the outcome”.

More information

Maddocks legal insight: High Court ruling on Facebook comments

ABC report on Facebook and community groups

More help from Maddocks

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