The Voller case emphasises the power imbalance between publishers and platforms, but publishers aren’t trying hard enough

This week, the Court of Appeal upheld a Supreme Court decision that media outlets are liable for comments left on their Facebook posts. That poses huge defamation risks, but as Australian Community Managers' Venessa Paech explains, brands - including publishers - need to be better at moderating the engagement they fight so hard to buy, as they continue to pump advertising dollars into digital platforms.

In the past decade, there’s been a growing divide between what companies spend pushing content and advertising on social media platforms, and the money spent managing the interactions around that content.

Brands – including media outlets – aren’t responsible for Facebook’s justly condemned algorithmic editorial prioritising of content and behaviour that divides and sensationalises. But this week, the Court of Appeal confirmed they are legally responsible for the engagement they’re buying. And too often, they’re falling short.

Dylan Voller’s defamation case against the country’s top media outlets is highlighting the serious challenges facing moderators

Social media management and moderation is a professional discipline. It costs money, as any specialist expertise does. We don’t question the need to hire an accountant to manage the books. Why is it still anathema to hire a professional to manage social media? Manage all of it, holistically, not just post and measure.

The hit-and-run approach of publishing without follow-up contributes to the toxicity of our social media environments. Companies happily pay to access audiences on social media. Yet, when called out for neglectful management of these audiences, they’re silent, or they complain. ‘It’s not a priority’. ‘We can’t afford it’. And in occasional desperation, ‘It helps our numbers’.

In the 1980s, American criminologists Wilson and Kelling coined the ‘broken windows theory’ to explain the relationship between visible signs of antisocial behaviour and resulting disorder. Every troll you ignore, and every personal attack you let slide, is a broken window in your digital neighbourhood and a beacon to others that no one’s home.

It’s when we don’t show up, when we signal we don’t care, that issues may fester. This is about presence and consistency – brands need to show up for more than the likes. The culture of engagement you build is an extension of your brand. What do the interactions tell me about you? What values are you showing you stand for?

It can be hard for small businesses and under-resourced organisations to hire professionals to manage their social media interaction. Yet, in my experience, these organisations often invest more time and care than larger brands that comfortably spend a qualified social media manager’s salary on Facebook advertising. Professional social moderation can’t be a begrudging afterthought.

The Voller case has so far seen media outlets deemed legally liable for comments their social media posts attract

No-one is demanding 24/7 moderation. Especially not in a post-COVID-19 moment, where publishers under existing financial pressure are feeling an even tighter squeeze. What’s needed is consistent social media management from someone trained in moderation, who understands where automation can assist and where human intervention is essential.

If you can’t afford to hire, get training or coaching to help you or your team member on the front line, and bridge the gap. There are best practices, systems, frameworks and tools to help scale this work and make all of us better social media stewards.

There are thousands of professional community managers in Australia, many of whom work on social media platforms like Facebook. Their job is to create healthy, safe engagement that drives purpose for the organisation and the participants.

Though they’re not lawyers, they typically have training that allows them to balance freedom of expression and what’s right for their audience, with collective safety. They often make concessions for those who want to build healthy engagement but aren’t cash rich. They’re a critical buffer between the worst of our internet selves and the positive power of social media. They flatten the harmful curve.

It is deeply unfair to place the sole burden of moderation on brands. Platforms have a critical role to play and they’re not yet doing their part. There’s not enough tools for professionals to craft healthy engagement on Facebook, and simple changes could make this a lot easier. Their business model makes the battle an uphill one.

But this doesn’t change the fact that any business using social media for commercial gain has a responsibility to minimise harms while extracting benefits. The Voller ruling is an important, if uncomfortable, reminder of this.

Venessa Paech is co-founder of Australian Community Managers


Get the latest media and marketing industry news (and views) direct to your inbox.

Sign up to the free Mumbrella newsletter now.



Sign up to our free daily update to get the latest in media and marketing.