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‘You wouldn’t wish it on your worst enemy’: Sport rumour mill runs wild in social media age

If there is anyone who can empathise with Seibold’s situation it is Geyer. His own daughter, Montana, was last year wrongly accused of being involved in a sex tape with Penrith playmaker Tyrone May.

While Seibold is foreshadowing criminal action against those behind the rumours about him, albeit somewhat quixotically given the difficulty cyber sleuths say he will have in identifying them, Geyer’s daughter is already going down the path of court action, albeit not involving criminal charges. She is taking Faoud Ghosn, the alleged creator of the Facebook pages where the false claims about her were made, to the NSW District Court, and a defamation hearing will be held later this year.

Broncos coach Anthony Seibold is angry at vicious rumours about him.

Broncos coach Anthony Seibold is angry at vicious rumours about him.Credit:Getty Images

“It’s something you wouldn’t wish upon your worst enemy, especially when you hear one of your kids screaming at the top of their lungs about something they’ve seen on social media that’s about them and they’ve got nothing do to with. It’s totally wrong,” Geyer says.

“She just hasn’t been the same since. She doesn’t go out as much anymore. It’s sad, that people can have the power to write something or say something from behind a keyboard that isn’t true. I don’t think that when they press send on that message they know the carnage they’re about to inflict.”

Harmful stories have been manufactured about high-profile sports figures, just as with others in the public eye, years before Mark Zuckerberg even thought about Facebook. But in the self-publishing age, they are able to gain traction at ferocious speed, no matter if they’re more fiction than fact.

In rugby league alone there are myriad examples in recent times. There has been a consistently peddled tale, untrue, about an affair between a leading player and a television presenter. Last year, another NRL coach was the subject of rumours of a split with a player over a party at the coach’s house that had supposedly gotten out of control. The club, which was adamant the whole thing was an invention, tracked down the source and had the original post removed.

You’re better off coming out sometimes and just addressing it, saying this is total nonsense, and knocking it on the head.

Eddie McGuire

Seibold and the Broncos had been getting calls from journalists regarding the messages being distributed about him for at least two months, principally because it was claimed within them that he was close to quitting. There were multiple iterations of the rumour but they were promptly shut down as baseless.

When Seibold remained in Sydney, however, after a game to attend to an urgent family matter, meaning he would have to spend two weeks in quarantine before re-joining the team’s coronavirus bubble, the scandalous scuttlebutt went to the next level. Suddenly, every second taxi driver and shop owner had heard it, was sure it was right, Seibold was trending on Twitter, and not simply for overseeing the NRL glamour club’s worst ever season. This time it was claimed he was about to be sacked, that certain reporters were sitting on the story as a favour to the Broncos and that the source of it all was “very reliable”. Again, it was all made up.

Seibold’s lawyer, Dave Garrett, has since added another intriguing layer to it all amid reports there may be people with links to NRL figures behind the smear campaign, saying “it’s not just random trolls”.

While the Brisbane coach has gone on the front foot in a potentially landmark move, one of the most recognisable figures in Australian sport admits “there is no playbook” for trying to clear your name in the social media age.

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire has just about heard it all in decades of sports broadcasting and administration.

Mark Geyer's daughter is taking the creator of Facebook page NRL Memes to court.

Mark Geyer’s daughter is taking the creator of Facebook page NRL Memes to court.

Last year the Magpies called the AFL to investigate the circulation of false claims made online that the club was going to be banned from the finals because of a betting sting. McGuire himself has been the subject of bogus advertisements, with his likeness used to try and fleece people in investment scams.

Given the unregulated nature of what can be posted online, he is a realist about the pitfalls of social media.

“We now know that people aren’t good on social media,” he says. “There is no regulation. We know [people] have been able to use social media and the biggest platforms in the world to … change the course of elections, democracies etc. So they’re not going to worry about a footballer or a netballer or a TV host or anything in Australia.”

At the same time, McGuire can understand why Seibold has taken the route he has.

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire.

Collingwood president Eddie McGuire.Credit:ninevms

“I remember long before social media there was a rumour sweeping Melbourne about a player having an affair with a teammate’s girlfriend,” McGuire says.

“The girlfriend was high profile as well and she rang me up and said ‘can you get on the radio and knock this on the head’. I said ‘I really advise against that’. But she said ‘No, it’s getting too much [attention], it’s really starting to affect me’. So, as a journo back then, I got on the radio the next day and said ‘here’s the story that’s going around, here’s what the situation is’, and it actually knocked it on the head.

“So I learned a lesson myself there. You’re better off coming out sometimes and just addressing it, saying this is total nonsense, and knocking it on the head.”

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The responses of Geyer and now Seibold come at a time the landscape around defamation law is changing in Australia, with legislative reform and a growing proportion of social media-related cases making their way to court.

The NSW Court of Appeal said in a decision in June that traditional media outlets like News Corp and Nine, the publisher of this masthead, could be liable for comments posted on their public Facebook pages.

While major media companies signalled a possible appeal to the High Court, Attorney-General Christian Porter has called for the social media platforms themselves to be held responsible for the content published on them under new laws. What that would look like is undetermined, but in the next phase of reforms being considered by governments around the country, it is an agenda item.

NSW Attorney-General Mark Speakman said when announcing the passage of the first tranche of reforms through state parliament this month that the next stage would include ways “to refine the responsibilities of internet platforms for the publication of defamatory material on their sites”.

Geyer, for one, agrees there needs to be more accountability on the part of the social media companies themselves.

But like Seibold, it’s the person behind the keyboard or touchscreen that his focus is on right now.

“I’m going to do everything I can to clear my daughter’s name. I’m doing what I hope every father would do,” he says.

“A lot of people don’t want to go through [legal] proceedings. But if you’ve done nothing wrong you’ve got nothing to hide. I don’t care if it goes for another five years.”

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