Posted on March 14, 2014 by Frances Tse

Grapevine effect of social media is recognised in defamation case

A District Court judge in Mickle v Farley [2013] NSWDC 295 has recognised the grapevine effect of social media in assessing the amount of damages to be awarded in a defamation case.

The case involved the making of defamatory statements by a former student against a teacher on Twitter and Facebook. The judge who decided the case, Elkaim SC DCJ,  emphasised the fact that the statements were made on social media when assessing damages (which he awarded in the amount of $105,000).

His Honour stated:

‘…when defamatory publications are made on social media it is common knowledge that they spread. They are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication. I have taken that into account in the assessment of damages…’

There is no reference in the judgment to any evidence of the number of people on Facebook and Twitter who saw the defamatory statements. However, the judge clearly accepted that publications made on social media naturally spread, and that this ‘grapevine effect’ of social media factors into the amount of damages which should be awarded.

The amount of damages awarded also included an amount of $20,000 for aggravated damages attributable to the conduct of the former student. Whilst the student appeared to give an unequivocal apology to the teacher and removed the defamatory comments from his social media page, he nevertheless caused particular hurt to the teacher by putting forward a spurious defence of truth during the proceedings.

As the use of social media becomes ever more prevalent, this case highlights the serious consequences that may stem from posting, sharing or re-tweeting defamatory statements on social media.

Administrators of Facebook pages could also be held liable for defamatory comments posted on the page by others, if those comments are not removed after a request to remove the comments is made. Administrators should therefore take particular care to act promptly to remove defamatory comments from their pages.