You may have noticed in your preferred social media feed the
startling news that unfriending someone on Facebook
now amounts to bullying in Australia. The news of this new
Australian regime spread quickly, being reported by
UK news websites. It was enough to send shivers down the spines
of countless Facebook users, worried about the legal ramifications
of their social media use. It was also, of course, completely
It is indeed true that
Fair Work Commission deputy president Nicole Wells found that Ms
Rachael Roberts, an employee of a Launceston real estate
agency, was the victim of bullying by another employee, Mrs Lisa
Bird. It is further correct that Mrs Bird unfriending Ms Roberts on
Facebook was raised in the matter, however this was amongst 16
other allegations, many of them far more serious including
behaviour that sabotaged her work for clients and the enforcement
of workplace policies against Ms Roberts that were not enforced
against other employees. Even the particular allegation involving
the Facebook unfriending was part of a greater series of events
involving belittling remarks after Ms Roberts complained about Mrs
Bird's behaviour. The statement by deputy president Wells that
the unfriending evidenced that Mrs Bird "did not like Ms
Roberts and would prefer not to have to deal with her" is
hardly controversial. What was not found, however, is that the
Facebook unfriending alone constituted bullying or was even a major
contributor given the numerous other allegations that were made
The suggestion that this decision is part of the new Australian
legal landscape, as many headlines appear to make out, is also
obviously incorrect. As a decision in a Commission, its
precedential value is quite minimal even if we ignore the
particular circumstances of the matter. The result of the case was
s789FF order to stop the bullying. It is worth noting that
legislation does not allow this order to take the form of a
compensatory sum of money but rather attempts to resolve an
obviously hostile work environment.
So why should we be concerned that the case has been
misreported? Unfortunately, cases such as this are prime fodder for
"click-bait journalism", that is, online reports
primarily designed to get the reader to click and share the article
rather than necessarily informing them. Controversial (and
typically misleading) headlines are the main weapon against
distracted online eyes and they are increasingly proving
Betteridge's law of headlines: any headline ending in a
question mark ("Does this superfood cure cancer?" or
"Can you no longer legally smile in Australia?") can
almost invariably be answered with the word "no".
Misinformation from click-bait can indeed be a problem for
social media users. For over
50% of Australians, social media represent their only source of
news. This is not necessarily a bad thing as social media platforms
are a far more efficient propagator of information than the
sporadic broadcasts of yesteryear. However, given
concerns about legal knowledge in the public there is a risk
that misleading headlines will result in incorrect assumptions
about people's legal rights. Facebook users might unnecessarily
balk from unfriending someone for legitimate purposes (finding
their posts offensive or their food pics unappetising, for
instance) out of an unfounded concern about the legal
This has been observed before with the infamous
McDonald's coffee case. Often touted as an example of the
American legal system gone mad, the case involved Ms Stella Liebeck
suing McDonald's Restaurants after she was scalded by her
drive-thru coffee. What is often omitted in the telling of this
story is the seriousness of the injuries including third-degree
burns, eight days of hospitalisation and numerous skin grafts.
McDonald's were also shown to be brewing their coffee far
hotter than usual and it emerged that they had
already settled some 700 cases involving customers burning
themselves on their coffee. Ms Liebeck was hardly greedy in her
demands either, making a modest initial offer that was only 3% of
what the trial judge eventually awarded her (although the parties
later settled for a confidential amount prior to any appeal).
Despite this, the narrative of a vexatious litigant suffering a
minor inconvenience pervades to this day.
The allure of the click-bait headline is hard to fight,
particularly as traditional news outlets are struggling in the face
of new technology and free sources of news. Journalistic accuracy
is impossible to enforce in a world of globalised online media, so
perhaps a more scrutinising media consumer is what's required.
Throughout the history of mass communication, since smoke signals
were telling us about "15 Mammoth hunting grounds you just
won't believe", one question remains key: what
aren't they telling us?
The content of this article is intended to provide a general
guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought
about your specific circumstances.
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