Are your online posts at risk of putting you offside with the law?
Defamation and social media
The decision of Al Muderis v Duncan (No 3)  NSWSC 726 is a timely reminder to all social media users to be careful of their online behaviour. Gerado Mazzella and his brother, Rodney Duncan, were ordered to pay a total of $480,000 in damages earlier this month, as a result of defamatory online posts.
It all started in 2010 when Dr Al Muderis performed hip surgery on Mr Mazzella. A few months after the procedure, Mr Mazzella began to complain about ‘a degree of numbness in his [genitalia]’ and ‘a loss of sexual function’. The consensus was that the injury had been sustained because Mr Mazzella flew overseas soon after his operation - contrary to medical advice.
In 2011, Mr Mazzella started medical negligence proceedings against Dr Muderis and simultaneously lodged a complaint with the Health Care complaints Commission, both of which were dismissed. Clearly frustrated, Mr Mazzella began to threaten Dr Muderis, stating that he intended to remove the Dr’s own genitalia and then kill him. Other threats were made about the doctor’s wife and children.
Mr Mazzella and his brother weren’t content to stop there… In December 2014, a publication written by the pair about Dr Al Muderis was discovered on the website ‘www.almuderis.co’. Using the doctor’s entire last name, the website featured content ‘intended to look like an authentic website for’ Dr Muderis. On this website, the brothers attacked Dr Muderis’ professionalism and personal character. The website also had links to a nine and a half minute YouTube rant about the doctor. The website further suggested that he was ‘unethical, arrogant, and had a reckless disregard for human life’. The following websites containing similar messages were also discovered:
- www.almurderis.me; and,
Dr Muderis also discovered a Facebook page in 2014, operated by the brothers, containing images of monsters and wanted posters that referred to him. The Facebook page suggested that the doctor had butchered and mutilated his patients. The YouTube video was also available, as well as publications on Daily Motion and Pinterest where the same video was linked, under headings and variations of ‘Dr Al Muderis the Butcher’.
The Court found in favour of Dr Muderis, deeming the publications to be defamatory and ordering the brothers to pay the doctor $320,000 in damages. Mr Duncan was ordered to pay an additional $160,000.
How can I protect myself/my brand?
- When posting an online review, keep the review short and sweet. Ensure your review is based on your own personal experience and keep the online reviews honest.
- As a brand owner, you should set up Google Alerts which will notify you when a specific word or phrase, like your brand name, has been published online. Any hits on the particular phrase will be emailed to your designated email address. This is a great way to monitor any content written about you or your brand online and allows you to discover adverse content immediately. This in turn enables you to take steps towards removing the content, by either contacting the author or the website directly. Alternatively, if the publication is positive for your brand image, it may be something you wish to circulate via your own social media channels.
- Stalk yourself – Let’s be honest, we’ve all Googled ourselves to see what comes up. Well, we’re here to encourage you to do it more often. Searches on Google and various social media platforms such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram can help you discover knock-off pages. We also suggest searching variations of your name and brand as the above example shows that deliberately misspelt pages can be utilised to fool ill-informed clients/customers. If you do discover knock-off pages, you may be able to write to the account holder. If the pages are unofficial (meaning no one is actually responsible for the page), contact us and we can work with you to remove the page.
- Don’t be complacent – You need to deal with knock-off pages and accounts to contain and minimise any potential damage to your brand which may arise from your customers being exposed to such untrue reviews. According to a recent article by Bright Local, 84% of people trust online reviews as much as a personal recommendation. Further, 90% of consumers read less than 10 reviews before forming an opinion about a brand/business. These statistics indicate that it is critical your clients and prospective clients are directed to authentic pages that you police, and that display authentic reviews and comments.
- Don’t tolerate it – Undoubtedly Dr Muderis would have incurred significant costs in defending his reputation however, he operates (pardon the pun) in an industry where reputation is priceless. Further, having met him and been acquainted with his career history, he is clearly someone who worked hard to develop his impeccable reputation amongst his peers and the wider community. It would have been a shame to allow such a well established reputation to be tarnished by online trolls.
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If you have noticed some knock-off accounts relating to you or your brand and would like to speak with one of the lawyers in Coleman Greig's Brand Protection team, please don't hesitate to get in touch with us on 02 9895 9230, or via firstname.lastname@example.org.
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