The impact of social media on the legal profession has been palpable.
Whether helpful in terms of advertising or harmful in terms of an ill-considered post or tweet, there is one constant, and that is that once the social media juggernaut starts to gain momentum, there is little that the poster or postee can do to slow it down.
In the microcosm that is Townsville, it is uncontroversial that there has been a heightened awareness of matters in the youth justice space. On account of strong opinions regarding these issues, certain Facebook groups which are oriented towards crime awareness have gained momentum – to the point that one of these groups has just short of 48,000 members and another has just over 20,000 members.
Whilst the input of the moderators of such groups may vary, some members of these groups have treated these groups as a vehicle to express their views, opinions and experiences with a perceived impunity because others in the group share similar views and will in fact encourage those views or opinions to be expressed – in some cases the louder the better.
The comments have varied. In the past these have usually been confined to attacks on the judiciary, with comments as benign as the judicial officer in question being out of touch with community expectations, to corrupt, or to greater extremes with wishing that the judicial officer had their house broken into or worse.
These comments are obviously unacceptable, ill-informed and outrageous. However, attacks on specific members of the legal profession now also seem to be on the increase. Bear in mind that people that operate in this field are, by and large, younger members of the profession, providing duty lawyer services in this area and are only doing their job. The reputational, economic and mental health consequences of these attacks are potentially significant.
There are three specific instances that have all occurred in the last six months which highlight this growing issue:
The solicitor represents a defendant who has been charged with actions involving having taken their own action against potential youth offenders.
The defendant is unhappy with the result that is achieved by the solicitor (although looking at it objectively from the outside it is actually a very good result). The defendant then posts the result on one of these crime alert pages, names and complains about his solicitor and discusses how the result is the solicitor’s fault.
The comments start with most agreeing that it is a terrible result and the solicitor did a terrible job, others suggesting the defendant was ripped off, others saying he should have used solicitor X or Y instead, etc.
Noting the number of people on these Facebook pages, the reputational impact caused by these keyboard warriors is significant. Not to mention how the solicitor must feel having a group of people jump on a bandwagon to tell them what a terrible job they did.
This solicitor has now changed some of the areas of law that he works in to limit the potential impacts on both his reputation and his mental health.
A solicitor makes a bail application for someone involved in a significant matter involving juvenile offenders. She is named in the newspaper which is then posted onto one of these Facebook pages.
Moments later both Facebook and Twitter move into action. There are people making significantly derogatory comments about the solicitor. A right-wing politician specifically names her on her Facebook page, exposing her to a greater audience of people who have a particular view about juvenile justice.
The fact that she is so publicly exposed to ridicule should not be seen as an occupational hazard for a young, criminal lawyer – it is just obnoxious and defamatory, particularly given that the lawyer is simply acting on the instructions that she is obliged to act upon.
A solicitor makes an application for the court to be closed to the media. A member of one of these Facebook pages copies the newspaper’s article onto the Facebook page.
Comments are then made which are both concerning, derogatory and defamatory. Her employer contemplates making defamation claims, and for the next five weeks the solicitor is provided with a duress alarm with ‘back-to-base’ capabilities in case anything actually happens to her.
The stressors in a matter like this come from various angles – first, from the derogatory comments online, second because there is a clear concern that something might happen to her, and third, carrying a duress alarm around is an ever-present reminder that there are people out there that have said things that raise safety concerns.
It is difficult to imagine the impact that each of these instances would have on the individual solicitors. However, it would be naive to think that these are isolated circumstances, and it is readily foreseeable that matters of this nature are not confined to Townsville.
There are multiple articles on the effects of cyberbullying and its effect on young people and adolescents. However, this does not necessarily fall under the heading of cyberbullying, it fits more within the definition of cyber-aggression.
There is very little scholarly research on this topic, however it was noted in the Journal of Mental Health that cyber-aggression is defined as “intentional harm carried out through electronic means to an individual or a group of individuals of any age, who perceive(s) such acts as offensive, derogatory, harmful or unwarranted. ICT (information communication technologies) users often have lower inhibition and greater spontaneity and a sense of perceived anonymity.”
When looking at the effects the article states “participants identified the impact of cyber-aggression on student mental health and well-being, including fear, discomfort, stress and anxiety”.So, the impact on those effected by those who perpetrate this type of abuse are real, and cumulatively could cause further mental health issues in the future.
Taking on people on Facebook pages who express their vitriol from behind keyboards and in some cases behind pseudonyms can be difficult or impossible, and in most cases largely futile, as you are taking on the masses and the truth is not as important as the safety they feel in the echo chamber of a Facebook page.
What can be done though, is the provision of support. If employers are aware that one of their employees is under attack from one of these groups, then support needs to be offered.
We are one big profession and if we are aware that our colleagues are experiencing stressors like this, please be prepared to talk and offer support to the legal practitioner.
Whilst the noise will disappear after the social media storm, the damage can be long lasting, and it is incumbent upon us as professionals to assist our fellow professionals when they are suffering, particularly so when they did little/nothing to deserve it and have no control over it.
If this story has caused distress, members and their families are encouraged to access the QLS confidential counselling service, Lawcare, 24 hours a day on 1800 177 743 or online .
Mark Fenlon is a Senior Prosecutor for the Queensland Police Service, an accredited peer support officer and the Queensland Law Society’s representative to the Law Council of Australia’s Regional, Rural and Remote Lawyers Committee, where he chairs the Retention and Recruitment sub-committee. Mark is also the Immediate Past President of the Townsville District Law Association.
1 Faye Mishna, Cheryl Regehr, Ashley Lacombe-Duncan, Joanne Daciuk, Gwendolyn Fearing & Melissa Van Wert (2018) Social Media, cyber-aggression and student health on a university campus, Journal of Mental Health, 27:3.