CNN has become the first major news organisation to disable its Facebook page in Australia, citing a high court decision which said publishers are legally responsible for comments posted below their stories.
The US-based news network, owned by telecommunications giant AT&T, said it was “disappointed” Facebook declined a request to help disable public comments below CNN articles on the social media platform and it had no choice but to block Australian users.
While Facebook allows publishers to control who can comment on public posts, it does not give publishers the ability to delete comments en masse, meaning it has to be done post by post.
Facebook also does not have a feature that allows pages to turn off commenting by market/geography, making it impossible to isolate Australian users of the international CNN Facebook page.
Earlier this month some of Australia’s biggest media companies lost a bid in the high court to escape liability for defamatory third-party comments on their social media posts.
The case stemmed from a 2017 case in which the former Northern Territory youth detainee Dylan Voller successfully argued that media organisations are liable as publishers of third-party comments made in response to articles posted on their public Facebook pages.
In a five-two majority decision, the court rejected Fairfax and News Corp’s appeal, finding they could be held liable for allegedly defamatory material posted by third parties in comments under articles on their Facebook pages about Voller, whose mistreatment in the Northern Territory’s Don Dale youth detention centre led to a royal commission.
The decision is expected to have wide ramifications for Australian media companies as well politicians and the general public who run Facebook pages or other social media accounts. They will need to closely moderate all comments at all times, and delete potentially defamatory content, or switch off comments altogether – a feature Facebook introduced in March.
Last week Tasmanian premier Peter Gutwein announced on his Facebook page that in the wake of the judgment, some posts on the page would have comments turned off.
Guardian Australia has recently turned comments off on most Facebook posts but allows reader interaction on a small number.
“We are disappointed that Facebook, once again, has failed to ensure its platform is a place for credible journalism and productive dialogue around current events among its users,” CNN said.
“CNN will, of course, continue to publish content on our own platforms in Australia and to deliver quality journalism to our audiences around the world.”
A Facebook company spokesperson said it has several features available for publishers to restrict who can comment on posts.
“We support the ongoing reform of Australia’s uniform defamation laws and look forward to greater clarity and certainty in this area,” the spokesperson said.
“Recent court decisions have reaffirmed the need for such law reform. While it’s not our place to provide legal guidance to CNN, we have provided them with the latest information on tools we make available to help publishers manage comments.”
The high court majority found that merely facilitating and encouraging comments amounted to “participation” in the communication of defamatory material, even if the original poster was not aware of the content of later comments.