It was Sunday night in Byron Shire and, as usual, a Facebook debate was raging.
An opinion piece by Echo columnist Mandy Nolan about a sexualised image on a children’s carnival ride had become the subject of a series of vitriolic posts on a community page in Brunswick Heads.
Ms Nolan was the target of most of the comments, though a number of others were also on the receiving end.
Things were getting nasty.
Then they became threatening.
One person involved in the debate received a direct Facebook message in which the sender called her a ‘slut’ and threatened to come around and ‘stomp’ on her ‘head’.
Risk of legal action
About a day later the administrator of the page, Ian Barnes, stepped in and took all but one of the threads down, citing the risk of legal action.
‘It all became very ugly unfortunately, from both sides of the debate,’ Mr Barnes said.
‘I had warned members to keep discussions civil on numerous occasions, I even tried three times to shut the topic down before it got started again. By the time I got home from work and logged into the page, all hell had broken loose.’
It was not the first time that one of the Shire’s community Facebook groups had been the forum for a hateful, personal attack. Other groups such as Mullumbytes and the Byron Bay Community Board have also seen similar incidents occur.
While most of the time the group’s pages are used to share information and respectfully discuss community concerns, there have been an increasing number of incidents of bullying and abuse as the groups have grown in size.
According to cyber experts and lawyers interviewed by The Echo, the trend raises both safety and legal issues for those who join online community groups and those who administer them.
Cyber safety expert Kirra Prendergast says the incidents on the Shire’s community Facebook groups reflect a typical pattern of bullying or abusive online behaviour.
‘It’s your classic “keyboard warrior” scenario,’ says Ms Prendergast, who runs workshops for school students for her business Safe on Social.
‘Someone sitting at home behind their computer screen makes a critical comment about someone else and then other people join in and it becomes a bit of a mob.
‘Then there’s a hundred people “liking” the comments and it becomes an ego thing. The people attacking feel like they’re a “strong voice” and that they have the support of the mob. The impact on the person being attacked or criticised – and their safety – tends to be forgotten.’
Ms Prendergast says that in the Shire certain issues tend to trigger heated arguments that can easily descend into abuse.
‘The anti-vaccination and pro-vaccination groups go toe to toe – anything to do with feminism goes crazy, shark nets, veganism – anyone who says anything about those topics can become a target,’ she says.
This was borne out by the recent experience of local mother Sylvia Fenwick when she posted a question about enrolling unvaccinated children in pre-school on the Byron Bay Community Board Facebook page.
‘I thought I’d missed the deadline for sending my boy to daycare and wanted to connect with other parents in the same boat,’ Ms Fenwick says.
‘I specifically said I just wanted to connect with other parents and not to have a debate about vaccination.’
Despite this request, Ms Fenwick soon became the target of a stream of angry and in some cases abusive comments. One member of the group likened her children to ‘lepers’. Another called her stupid.
Ms Fenwick said that she managed to weather the storm reasonably intact, but that those who were commenting obviously didn’t care.
‘People have no idea what you’re going through in your personal life and something as small as one of these comments could send somebody into a deep depression or worse. No bulling is okay ever!’
Such incidents have become so common that there is a growing risk that a bitter exchange could end up in court.
Experienced defamation lawyer Duncan Fine says many people are not aware that they can be sued for simply posting a comment online that could ‘potentially damage another person’s reputation’.
‘All that’s really required is for someone to say something about another person online that could make an ordinary, reasonable reader think less of that person,’ Mr Fine says.
‘If someone is identified in the comment and if there is at least one other person who sees it, then it basically meets the criteria for defamation.
‘It is possible for the person being accused of making the defamatory comments to defend themselves by arguing that the comments were true. But they can’t just say that, they have to actually prove it in court. If you can’t do that, the chances are you’ll lose.’
There have been a string of defamation actions over Facebook comments in the past five years, including a recent case in which a Sydney couple had to pay $15,000 after complaining about a neighbour’s dogs on a community page.
Admins not immune
It is not only the person who writes the post who can be sued for defamation, but also the administrator of the site, even if they were unaware it had been posted.
‘As far as the law is concerned the administrator of a Facebook page is considered the “publisher” of that page,’ Mr Fine says.
‘It means they are potentially liable for anything that is said on that page in the same way that a newspaper publisher is liable for anything said underneath their masthead.’
However, unlike large media organisations, the administrators of community Facebook pages are not trained media professionals assisted by teams of moderators. They are volunteers seeking to provide a forum for the members of their community while balancing busy lives.
Ms Prendergast believes there is a need for better education so that administrators know what they’re getting themselves into.
‘Facebook administrators have a very important role, not just legally, but also in terms of protecting people. I think there’s a need for them to know about the risks and responsibilities of the role.’
In Mullumbimby a group of residents are exploring an alternative option – a local Facebook group set up specifically for respectful, constructive discussion.
Called ‘Mullumhugs’, locals are asked to acknowledge the intention of the group before being allowed to join.
The founder of the page, Robyn Green, says she set up the page in response to requests from other community members who were sick of reading abusive comments.
‘Look, I love debate, I love the back and forth – that’s how you learn and how you grow,’ Ms Green says.
‘But there are certain standards in a debate – attack the argument, not the person who’s speaking. I’ve seen some horrendous things. Threats, literally threats; horrible abuse.
‘I think people are relieved to have somewhere they can go and not feel threatened. One of the first comments was ‘phew, now I feel safe.’