So, first things first: what is the ruling that we’re talking about? Well, the Australian High Court, after much deliberation, has decided that Australian Facebook pages can be subjected to legal action if the comments underneath their posts offer up incendiary, uninformed rhetoric. Now, as this author’s sure most readers are thinking at this point, that is an unusually specific ruling. What could have brought this about? Also, what effect will this have on online journalism in the country? To answer these questions, let’s go back to the start and see why this decision was made in the first place.
The question of harmful journalism has been posed multiple times throughout history. However, choosing to focus specifically on the public response to such journalism was only recently brought up after the trial of a Dylan Voller. The inmates of a youth detention center in Darwin had been found to be physically abused and tortured even, back in 2016. Dylan Voller was one of the inmates of this very centre, and was accused by many news outlets to be propagating and even leading the attacks. A popular headline, entitled “Dylan Voller’s list of jailhouse incidents tops 200” is what would cement the public perception as being firmly against the individual.
Dylan Voller’s lawyers argued in court that such news outlets deliberately framed their articles to support a viewpoint against their client, even using flimsy or incorrect information to do so. Therefore, such influential outlets were actively manipulating perception against Voller, and tarnishing a trial’s integrity before it even began. Apparently, the High Court in Australia has agreed, and cracked down on such outlets.
So, where does this leave Facebook-based journalism? Well, articles that frame stories in a neutral, unaffected manner, or even those not promoting harmful agendas are fine. Even if perception in the comments is markedly negative, the news outlet at hand will not be to blame if their intentions are not harmful. While this could lead to an adverse effect on free press, with authors being more careful so as to not offend sensibilities, their brand of journalism is not actively harmed. It’s simply that clickbait articles and the like have a stopper on them now.
Ultimately, as is the case with all such rulings, speculation and reality don’t always align. Perhaps courts will use this new loophole to actively persecute new outlets and the like, or perhaps they will be fair in judgement. Only time and experience will tell.