With the sad news of the death of television personality Charlotte Dawson over the weekend, I repost this commentary I wrote for The Australian in September, 2012 after she had attempted to take her own life.
By MARK PEARSON
[Note: First published in The Australian on September 3, 2012.]
THERE are important lessons for us all in the near tragic saga of TV personality Charlotte Dawson and Twitter. [2014 note: clearly, it is now tragic]
And those lessons must be learnt not just by the media, but also by policymakers and the broader community.
The story of Dawson’s hospitalisation [in 2012] after receiving a torrent of life-threatening and demeaning tweets contained all the contradictions of our Web 2.0 world: risk versus reward, connection versus alienation, celebrity versus anonymity and freedom versus censorship.
When Dawson revealed a Monash University staffer was the source of some earlier postings and the employee was suspended, that “outing” triggered the final spate of insults and threats, and Dawson’s own sad messages from her @MsCharlotteD handle before her hospitalisation. The tweets raised the contentious legal issues of defamation, cyber-bullying, confidentiality, privacy, racial discrimination, jurisdiction and even unfair dismissal.
Dawson is [was] a former fashion model who has traded on her own harsh comments to contestants in a reality-TV program and in newspaper interviews where she has pilloried her home country of New Zealand.
Like many celebrities she has established a strong Twitter following of 21,450 [in 2012]- now seen as a crucial dimension to any wannabe A-lister’s public profile. In May, she tweeted a call for someone to “please kill” a fashion blogger, @BryanBoy, which she defended as a joke.
Of course, none of this justifies anonymous trolls threatening her life or urging her to kill herself, but it provides some context to the vitriol. It also defies the simplistic media story line of “evil social media causes real-life tragedy”. Dawson has previously spoken of life events that have rendered her emotionally vulnerable.
The issue of the media’s interaction with the vulnerable in our society recently gained traction with changes to journalism ethical codes in the wake of the federal government’s Mindframe media training initiative and associated research projects.
Some of that research demonstrated the flow-on effect of celebrity suicides and threats upon their vulnerable fans, making this example even more concerning.
Mindframe has been extended to schools, public relations courses and the courts, but social media proves the sensitivities of the vulnerable have not yet pierced the consciousness of many ordinary citizens.
It’s just one example of the rift between traditional and digital media in the Dawson event and its reportage. Journalists and executives in the old media are frustrated by the two-speed regulatory system. News organisations face legal and ethical brakes on their coverage while rumour, gossip and vitriol run wild on social media in defiance of legal prohibitions. Despite the predictable opportunism of some politicians, the case does not call for tougher laws to “control” social media. They already exist.
Earlier this year , the Federal Court ordered News Limited to pay $12,000 to the mother of indigenous boys killed in a car accident over anonymous comments it hosted on its website Perthnow.
A Queensland “troll” was jailed last year  for defacing the Facebook tribute pages of two slain children. In 2010, an anonymous poison penner in Victoria was hit with a $30,000 defamation judgment over comments about a Perth businessman.
But legal proceedings are unlikely to have any effect given the First Amendment and legislative protection for internet hosts in the US.
Instead of introducing more gags on free expression and policing them, politicians should invest those resources in funding education and training initiatives for responsible social media use in schools, tertiary institutions and the broader community.
For information about cyberbullying go to cybersmart.gov.au or contact Lifeline on 13 11 14.
© Mark Pearson 2012 and 2014
Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.