The Federal Court has awarded $875,000 in damages against a person who posted "vile" unfounded conspiracy theories online, after the victim initiated a defamation case.

National Party MP Anne Webster, who is based in Mildura in northern Victoria, discovered she and her husband, along with the charity they'd founded, were targeted by a woman making false claims about them on Facebook.

Woman sued for posting false and defamatory conspiracy theories online

Ms Karen Brewer, an online conspiracy theorist, had posted statements in 2020 alleging that Ms Webster, her husband and their charity, Zoe Support (which helps young mothers), were part of a secret criminal conspiracy involving child abuse.

The posts were similar to the so-called QAnon conspiracy theories, which are based on the fiction that a number of people in power are part of a global paedophile ring. Beginning in the US, these conspiracy theories have now spread through social media around the world.

The Websters and their charity sued Ms Brewer in the Federal Court for defamation contained in her Facebook posts.

Court finds no basis for reputation-damaging posts

The judge found the claims posted by Ms Brewer were false, untrue and damaged the reputation of the Websters and their charity in the Mildura community, where the posts were shared hundreds of times. (See Webster v Brewer (No 3) [2020] FCA 1343.)

While the judge found reasonable people would dismiss Brewer's online rants as "deranged and lacking in credibility", she accepted that some "suggestible" members of the community may have considered them credible.

"The conduct of Ms Brewer in defaming the applicants in the seven relevant publications is both disgraceful and inexplicable," the judge said.

"In text and video posts uploaded over approximately two weeks, Ms Brewer branded the Websters and Zoe Support as participants in a secretive criminal network involved in the sexual abuse of children.

"It would be counterproductive to record Ms Brewer's statements in any more detail than necessary to explain my reasons for this assessment of damages," the judge said.

"None of the publications identify any sensible basis for what she has written and said in those publications."

Accused ordered to pay $875,000 for defamatory online conspiracy theories

Ms Brewer, an Australian based in New Zealand, did not appear in court or file any defence to the defamation claim. She made no attempt to justify her posts, nor retract her statements from her Facebook page, which has several thousand followers.

Under the Victoria Defamation Act 2005, effective and fair remedies must be provided to persons whose reputations are harmed by the publication of defamatory matter. In accordance, Ms Brewer was ordered to pay the Websters $875,000 in damages.

Whether the Websters ever see the money from Ms Brewer remains to be seen, but the case is significant in awarding very substantial damages for defamation on social media.

Defamatory emails can also land you in court

Recently the NSW District Court awarded $20,600 to a 75-year-old chairman of a strata committee. One resident of the building had sent three emails to the strata committee, wrongly accusing the chairman of being a "peeping tom", after he was seen outside units checking whether windows needed repair. (See Matthews v Pigram [2020] NSWDC 526.)

Clearly, whether you are the victim of conspiracy theories made in public, on mainstream media, social media, or just to a few people in a small community, the law of defamation can apply. (For more information, please see Social media defamation: be cautious when posting or re-posting online comments, reviews and links and Defamation actions: the high cost of social media posts, comments and "likes".)

Are too many people initiating court action because of defamatory comments?

Some commentators are concerned about a growing tendency for people to resort to expensive and time-consuming court defamation proceedings when other remedies might be possible. However, if your reputation is damaged by false statements or conspiracy theories put forward in public forums and online, suing for defamation may be worth considering.

First though, it's important to consult a legal expert to see if you have a case. It's not just about seeking financial damages ordered by the court. It's about protecting reputations.

Taking legal action can lead to public retractions of false and damaging statements, apologies, removal of defamatory social media posts, and an order to end online attacks.

It may be that in future, social media publishers such as Facebook and Twitter will be made more accountable for material that is published on their sites.

After the judgement against Ms Brewer, Ms Webster stated that she was interested in exploring legislative changes that would lead to online publishers being held legally responsible for material that appears on their service.

Geoff Baldwin
Stacks Champion

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.