Study Explores Defamation In The Digital Age

When we think of defamation, it’s probably natural to think primarily of famous individuals who have the time, money and inclination to guard their reputations.  A new study from the University of Technology Sydney suggests that the social media age has seen a tremendous rise in defamation cases from less celebrated people.

The study found that over a five year period to 2017, just 21% of plaintiffs in defamation cases were noted figures, casting significant doubt on the heuristic we have on the main users of defamation laws.

Pre-social age

The study was also able to compare the core five-year period with 2007 to understand the difference social media has made on defamation in Australia.

“The proportion of digital cases – arising from publication in social media, websites, email and messaging – has increased substantially, from just over 17 per cent in 2007 to more than 53 per cent in 2017,” the authors explain.  “The landscape for legal disputes around reputation is changing, as the question ‘who is a publisher’ continues to evolve.”

There were nearly 200 cases initiated during the timeframe covered in the study, with a further 322 cases still ongoing that had begun before the study period.

The authors believe their work highlights the growing importance of social media platforms that aren’t affiliated with the kinds of traditional media usually associated with defamation disputes.

For instance, numerous cases involved Facebook posts, with emails another popular ‘platform’ for disputes.  In comparison Twitter languished behind, with text messages even less influential.  What’s more, there were also 37 cases involving websites that were classified as being neither mainstream media or social media.

“This study prompts us to think about the conditions for free expression in this country,” the authors say.  “Developments in technology and user expectations provide many of us with the opportunity to publish our views. There must be a role for public policy in moving us away from costly and time-consuming legal disputes.”