Google has been ordered to pay former New South Wales deputy premier John Barilaro more than $700,000 over a series of “racist” and “abusive” videos published on the YouTube channel Friendlyjordies.
On Monday, federal court justice Stephen Rares ruled that Barilaro had been left “traumatized” by a campaign of “relentless cyberbullying” by comedian Jordan Shanks, who uses the nom de plume Friendlyjordies.
Rares ruled that Google had failed to adhere to its policies by doing “nothing to prevent Mr. Shanks’ hate speech, cyberbullying, and harassment” of Barilaro.
The judge ordered Google to pay $715,000 in total, which could rise if a costs order is made against the tech company.
Rares also said he would refer the tech company and Shanks for possible contempt of court charges over the “improper pressure” placed on Barilaro during the case.
Barilaro sued Google, the owner of YouTube, and Shanks over videos titled “Cruz” and “Secret Dictatorship” published by Friendlyjordies in 2020.
The now-retired MP settled his federal court case against Shanks in November 2021 when Shanks apologized and edited the videos.
However, Rares said in his judgment that the comedian continued to post on YouTube about Barilaro, including videos containing “slurs” that he had lied to the NSW Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) and conducted an extramarital affair.
The videos also made what Rares called “allegations of professional impropriety” against Barilaro’s lawyers, which had no “factual or intelligible basis”.
The videos, and Google’s decision to leave them online, amounted to what the judge called “improper pressure” on Barilaro during the case.
“The intimidatory purpose of the
hit its mark,” Rares found, pointing to evidence given by Barilaro during the trial that he had at one point instructed his lawyers to settle the case because “the hell continued”.
In a harsh judgment, Rares said Shanks had run a “relentless cyberbullying” campaign against Barilaro which “caused him to leave public office prematurely”.
He said the two videos at the center of the defamation trial conveyed “very serious and false” claims about Barilaro and received hundreds of thousands of views from which Google earned thousands of dollars.
Barilaro received “thousands of hateful, some quite disturbing social media posts [and] messages as a result of the videos, Rares found, including violent threats against his daughter.
“Google was part and parcel of this disgusting behavior because it facilitated, published, and kept up this and similar videos on YouTube,” Rares said.
“The ability of social media entities to publish and enable the communication of such material without constraint is a matter that the parliament should consider.”
After the judgment, Barilaro said he felt “vindicated”.
“This brings to a close a difficult time for me, and I could not have gotten to this point without the support of my family, friends, and colleagues,” Barilaro said.
“I am also thankful to my lawyers, Sue Chrysanthou SC and Paul Svilans from Mark O’Brien Legal, who endured immense pressure and exercised their remarkable skills to achieve this victory.
“All I wanted at the outset was for Google to remove these videos, and they refused. It is no small undertaking for an individual to take on a company like Google, but I needed to do so.
“The court’s detailed and considered reasons demonstrate why a person’s right to protect their reputation is fundamental to a thriving democracy. This decision is a great end to a decade of public service.”
During the hearing, Barilaro recalled telling his staff he contemplated self-harm after receiving significant online abuse.
“I was in a dark place,” Barilaro told the court.
“The pile on, pile on, bank on, down on. It’s hard to admit to your friends how you’re feeling [but] I did say those things and have thought about them often.
“When you’re away from your family in your apartment in Sydney, up late at night deleting abusive comments [online], I tell you what, you start looking at the balcony for a way out.”
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Barilaro told the court that statements in the Friendlyjordies videos, including repeated use of the words “wog”, “greasy,” and “slimeball,” made him feel as if he was at school where he said he suffered racist abuse because of his Italian heritage.
“I grew up with the word ‘wog’ and ‘dago’,” he said.
“I used to go to primary school and would start the day in a punch-up because I was called a ‘wog’.
“Anyone who wants to use the word ‘wog’ and think it doesn’t offend, well, ‘wog’ was not used as an endearment term; I grew up with that.”
In Australia, the crisis support service Lifeline is 13 11 14. In the US, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline is 1-800-273-8255. In the UK, Samaritans can be contacted at 116 123. Other international suicide helplines can be found at befrienders.org