Concerns about power and influence of social media in child abuse royal commission
SIMON SANTOW: As the child abuse Royal Commission moves into its second year of public hearings, there are growing concerns about how victims and organisations are using social media to discuss institutional child sexual abuse.
While social media is enabling survivors to connect with others and candidly share their stories in a way that was never possible before. There are warnings about the possible risks it may pose to future legal action.
Emily Bourke reports.
EMILY BOURKE: Last month, abuse survivor Alecia Buchanan told the Royal Commission about the comfort and support she’d found from others via social media.
ALECIA BUCHANAN: After so many years of silence, we… it was pouring out and a public forum of course we didn’t have anything like this in the old days, you know. So the social medium and people which, I’d never heard from contacted me and saying this is… thank you for… you know that was actually the most powerful thing, you know and it felt like we were being public.
EMILY BOURKE: Aaron Kernaghan has worked as a criminal defence lawyer and prosecutor and he represents victims and institutions appearing before the national inquiry.
AARON KERNAGHAN: It isn’t easy to come forward and talk to police, or to lawyers or to judges, it’s even less easy to talk to juries. But interestingly we seem to be moving as a society to a place where people have a great deal of ease with talking about incredibly private matters in a very public way.
EMILY BOURKE: He says the unfiltered stories and discussions on social media are changing and challenging the legal landscape.
AARON KERNAGHAN: Your usual first port of call with crime is to talk to the police but now it sees that it’s often becoming a post on a wall or a tweet.
EMILY BOURKE: Could engagements on social media by victims scuttle cases before the criminal justice system?
AARON KERNAGHAN: It’s unlikely in my view that a case would stop before it starts because of social media, but it is very likely that a case could fall apart very quickly because a victim or a witness has said something on social media that suggest they have an axe to grind other than their own victimisation.
For example they might be interested in money or they’ve said something in court that doesn’t match what they’ve said before. The important thing to remember is social media isn’t just an opportunity to exchange ideas and stories about what has happened to people.
As soon as you commit yourself to social media you have drafted the first draft of history. It becomes a record and that record, just like any record, whether it be a bank record or a letter that you’ve sent or an email that you’ve sent, can come back in a court process and be used either in support of you or against you.
EMILY BOURKE: There are also perils for organisations.
AARON KERNAGHAN: You can put a lot of complaints about and organisation on a wall, they can be true but they can also be not true. And when an organisation holds out a social media interface, it becomes very difficult for that organisation then to credibly and compassionately remove material that is either offensive or not true, without drawing criticism again. And the last thing institutions want to do particularly in the modern day and age is to appear to be covering up serious allegations of child abuse. So it puts them in a position which is really betwixt and between.