4 September 2018

Keyboard warriors down under

You may have heard the term ‘keyboard warrior’, but for those who have not, a keyboard warrior is someone who ‘makes abusive or aggressive posts on the internet, typically one who conceals their true identity’. Why am I explaining what a keyboard warrior is? Well, in Australia, not only can a person be liable for a defamatory post on social media, they can also be liable for the comments of third parties within their posts. Essentially, they are liable for the comments of keyboard warriors.

This has been established by Johnston v Aldridge (No 2) [2018] SADC 72 in the District Court of South Australia. Mark Aldridge, a former political candidate, published two Facebook posts regarding his dispute with Ben Johnston. The first of these posts attracted a plethora of third party comments, with Mr Johnston pleading that they “carried the imputations that he was a selfish greedy man of contemptible character.” The second, it was pleaded, “carried the further imputation that he had made, or was involved in, threats to rape or kill.” Though Mr Aldridge argued that he could take no responsibility for the comments of others, the court held that in light of his defamatory Facebook posts and the volume of comments of a similar nature – approximately 4,500 – these were not just acts of ‘mere vulgar abuse’, but defamation.

Judge Brebner held that, as one of the posts was liked over 9,000 times and shared almost 13,000 times, it was highly likely that it would attract comments of a similar nature to the imputations and that an ordinary person may believe the image portrayed of Mr Johnston. Thus, Mr Aldridge was held responsible for the third party comments and Mr Johnston was awarded $100,000 in damages.

While this is the current position in Australia, the UK has not quite adopted that far-reaching approach. This is evident in McAlpine v Bercow [2013] EWHC 1342 (QB), where Mrs Bercow tweeted the following: ‘Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*’ (the *innocent face* indicating the emoji with a halo). Lord McAlpine succeeded in his defamation claim against Mrs Bercow but, critically, she was only held responsible for her tweet and not any replies or retweets that may have followed her initial post.

Perhaps with the proliferation of social media platforms, and their increasing use, this may be something that becomes incorporated into UK law, or at least comes before the courts as a test case. This recent case serves as a lesson on the perils of social media. Keyboard warriors beware.

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About the Author
Claire Holford, Partner
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