Posting defamatory conspiracy theories online can cost you

25th Feb 2021

In Webster v Brewer (No. 3) [2020] FCA 1343, the Federal Court awarded $875,000 in damages against a person who posted ‘vile’ unfounded conspiracy theories online after the victim initiated a defamation case.

National Party MP Anne Webster (based in Mildura in northern Victoria) discovered that she and her husband, along with the charity they founded, were being targeted by a woman who had made false claims about them on Facebook.

Woman sued for posting false and defamatory conspiracy theories online

Ms Karen Brewer, an online conspiracy theorist, had posted statements in 2020 alleging that Ms Webster, her husband and their charity which helps young mothers, Zoe Support, were part of a secret criminal conspiracy involving child abuse.

The posts were similar to the so-called QAnon conspiracy theories which are based on the fiction that a number of people in power are part of a global paedophile ring. Beginning in the US, these conspiracy theories have now spread through social media around the world.

The Websters and their charity sued Ms Brewer in the Federal Court for defamation contained in her Facebook posts.

Court finds no basis for reputation-damaging posts

Gleeson J found that the claims posted by Ms Brewer were false, untrue and damaged the reputation of the Websters and their charity in the Mildura community, where the posts were shared hundreds of times.

While Gleeson J found that a reasonable person would have dismissed Ms Brewer’s online rants as ‘deranged and lacking in credibility’, she accepted that some ‘suggestible’ members of the community may have considered them credible.

Gleeson J stated that:

‘The conduct of Ms Brewer in defaming the applicants in the seven relevant publications is both disgraceful and inexplicable … In text and video posts uploaded over approximately two weeks, Ms Brewer branded the Websters and Zoe Support as participants in a secretive criminal network involved in the sexual abuse of children … It would be counterproductive to record Ms Brewer’s statements in any more detail than necessary to explain my reasons for this assessment of damages.’ (at [32]–[33]).

Further, Gleeson J found that ‘[n]one of the publications identify any sensible basis for what she has written and said in those publications.’ (at [38]).

Accused ordered to pay $875,000 for defamatory online conspiracy theories

Ms Brewer, an Australian based in New Zealand, did not appear in court or file any defence to the defamation claim. She made no attempt to justify her posts nor retract her statements from her Facebook page, which has several thousand followers.

Under the Victorian Defamation Act 2005, effective and fair remedies must be provided to persons whose reputations are harmed by the publication of defamatory matter. In this case, Ms Brewer was ordered to pay the Websters $875,000 in damages.

Whether the Websters will ever see this money from Ms Brewer remains to be seen, but the case is significant in awarding very substantial damages for defamation on social media.

Defamatory emails can also land you in court

Recently in Matthews v Pigram [2020] NSWDC 526, the NSW District Court awarded $20,600 to a 75-year-old chairman of a strata committee. One resident of the building had sent three emails to the strata committee, wrongly accusing the chairman of being a ‘peeping tom’ after he was seen outside units checking whether windows needed repair.

Clearly, whether you are the victim of conspiracy theories made in public, on mainstream media, social media, or just to a few people in a small community, the law of defamation can apply.[1]

Are too many people initiating court action because of defamatory comments?

Some commentators are concerned about a growing tendency for people to resort to expensive and time-consuming court defamation proceedings when other remedies might be available. However, if your reputation is damaged by false statements or conspiracy theories put forward in public forums and online, suing for defamation may be worth considering.

In NSW, the Defamation Amendment Act 2020 has attempted to deter people from starting actions over essentially trivial matters by requiring a litigant to show that ‘serious harm’ has been caused by the defamatory statements.

Taking legal action can lead to public retractions of false and damaging statements, apologies, removal of defamatory social media posts, and an order to end online attacks.

It may be that in future, social media publishers such as Facebook and Twitter will be made more accountable for material that is published on its sites.

After the judgment against Ms Brewer, Ms Webster stated that she was interested in exploring legislative changes that would lead to online publishers being held legally responsible for material that appears on their service.

This is an edited version of an article first published at Stacks Law.

Geoff Baldwin is a lawyer in the employment law team at Stacks Champion. He has worked at senior management levels in the public and tertiary education sectors, as an independent consultant providing management advice, and in the legal profession. His experience includes industrial relations litigation, property and leasing, commercial and administrative law advice, and workplace law. Originally trained as a scientist before being admitted to legal practice in 1977, Geoff has appeared in a range of employment tribunals and has instructed in matters before the Supreme Court. He is an experienced investigator in fields such as workers compensation, corrupt conduct and misconduct.

The views and opinions expressed in these articles are the authors' and do not necessarily represent the views and opinions of the Australian Lawyers Alliance (ALA).

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Tags: Damages defamation