At its peak, there were 139,000 people in "VCE Discussionspace", a Facebook group where Australian high school students discussed and commiserated over end of year exams.
But the huge group is no more, after a stoush with study company The School For Excellence (TSFX) got the group taken down from Facebook and escalated into a case in the Victorian Supreme Court.
How did it happen? Well, it's complicated.
High schoolers and graduates in Victoria used VCE Discussionspace to talk, rant, and share memes about completing the Victorian Certificate of Education (VCE). It started organically, but is now run by marketing company Trendy Rhino, which used the group to advertise for clients including Uber, Subway and PwC. It has had its share of controversy.
TSFX is a company offering programs for Year 11 and 12 students to improve their marks. It offers trial exams to its fee paying students, as well as selling them to schools.
The drama between the two kicked off in July 2018 when TSFX director Andrew Murchie learnt a Google drive folder was being shared online with more than 1,000 trial exams in it – including 42 trial exams owned by TSFX.
According to a court judgement from Justice John Dixon handed down last week, Trendy Rhino was providing access to these practice exams to members of VCE Discussionspace, and knew that this was a breach of copyright.
TSFX complained to Facebook about the breach, and VCE Discussionspace was taken down. About a week later, Trendy Rhino created a new Facebook group called "VCE DiscussionSpace Backup".
Lawyers got involved and correspondence flew back and forth, including promises from Trendy Rhino to take down the copyrighted exams and to refrain from making "derogatory, defamatory, unsavoury, untrue or unfavourable comments" about TSFX.
But things continued to escalate. On August 2, Discussionspace admin Shanaka Jayakody, 25, posted to the backup group:
"What happened to the original VCE discussionSpace?... boy do we have a story for you... help us recreate this temporary group and we’ll blow your minds with how one of the most engaged and active Facebook groups of 140,000 Victorian High School students got taken down (temporarily)... we’ll be making an announcement to update you very soon when this group is big enough."
After Trendy Rhino's lawyers told TSFX they had deleted the copyrighted exams, TSFX told Facebook the VCE Discussionspace group could go back up – which it did, on August 8.
But on August 12, Murchie complained to Facebook that there had been other copyright breaches, for material not owned by TSFX, in the group.
So VCE Discussionspace was deleted again by Facebook on August 14.
On August 29, Jayakody published a letter to the 11,000 people in the backup group, in which he railed against TSFX but didn't name the company.
"Even after removing these [copyrighted] exams, they put an exhaustive list of further demands in front of us. These demands were unreasonable, and put simply – demeaning," he wrote.
After Murchie told Facebook about the second copyright breaches and the group was pulled down a second time, Trendy Rhino decided to "take a stand", Jayakody wrote.
"We will no longer accept being bullied and strong armed by a company that claims to support students and their wellbeing and yet is actively taking down one of the most valuable student resources for their own ego and self interest," he said.
"This MUST stop. At 8pm we wil [sic] be releasing the name of this company to the group."
Over the next hour, Jayakody and two more Trendy Rhino directors, Charlie Franklyn and Himasha Fonseka, published "teaser" posts about the company's identity – before announcing it was TSFX, the court judgement said.
A poll was also posted in the group, urging people to respond with either a heart or angry face emoji as to who would win the eventual legal battle.
Over the next few days, a series of "derogatory and abusive" comments about TSFX was posted in the backup group, many of them from a person called "Shayden Ismat" which may or may not be a fake name, wrote Dixon.
The court also saw copies of what appeared to be "negative and abusive" Google reviews of TSFX, describing it as a "brothel" and a "public toilet".
Some of the posts in the backup group read:
"Fuck TSFX. They stuck their noses in our shit. You mess with the bull, you get the horns. And in this case, I’d say they messed with a pretty big fuckin bull."
"Then we just spam them will (sic) calls, emails etc for a few days, fuck up their business system One can also take down their website"
"You guys should go to the TSFX page and change the tags from education and organisation to public toilet"
"Ha I just googled it, the name isn’t there anymore but the main photo is of a toilet Good job"
A TSFX staff member told the court that Shayden Ismat had contacted him and also his wife on Facebook and led them to restrict access to their pages.
On Thursday last week, Dixon ordered that Trendy Rhino and the three directors are restrained from publishing "derogatory, defamatory, unsavoury, untrue or unfavourable comments" about TSFX or anybody associated with it, and that they must delete the posts and the poll in the backup group from August 29.
It was reasonable to anticipate that those posts would have encouraged an "abusive attack" on TSFX, Dixon said.
"For that reason, I do not accept that the defendants can contend that they bear no responsibility for publication of those further posts that respond to their ‘call to arms’ to ‘reclaim the group that is rightfully ours’."
In a statement, Jayakody and Franklyn told BuzzFeed News they had no part in the negative Google reviews of TSFX or the harassing messages sent to staff.
"We have not been involved in, and do not condone, any actions taken by members of the group following its removal from Facebook. At this stage, we cannot make any further comment, as the matter is currently the subject of legal proceedings," the pair said.
"When the group was taken down, the students were distraught and we received hundreds of emails, calls and texts from students who were worried that their exam results would be jeopardised by the loss of their forum."
TSFX is yet to file a statement of claim (the document laying out its allegations in the lawsuit), but suggested in a proposed document that it would allege breach of contract, defamation, and malicious falsehood against Trendy Rhino and the three directors.
The Trendy Rhino directors think it is unlikely they will get back the original group with 139,000 members and are working to build up a new group – which has 14,500 members as of September 11.
TSFX declined to comment. The matter is back in court on November 8.
Lane Sainty is a reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney, Australia.
Contact Lane Sainty at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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