A Facebook account at the centre of Australia’s long-running racial discrimination controversy changed its username and profile picture yesterday for the first time in months.
The “Calum Thwaites” Facebook account, which had borne the name and profile picture of the real student Calum Thwaites, suddenly changed to an image of me, accompanied with my name and the username facebook.com/IAmMarkDiStefano.
It’s an interesting development in the firestorm around Thwaites and the legal case that is being used by conservative MPs and self-proclaimed free speech advocates to argue for watering down Australia’s racial vilification laws.
Thwaites was one of several Queensland University of Technology students accused by an Indigenous administrative assistant, Cindy Prior, of writing a series of racist Facebook posts back in 2013.
Thwaites and others were accused of posting on the university’s “stalkerspace” page about getting kicked out of an Indigenous computer lab by Prior.
One post joked “QUT stopping segregation with segregation?”, another said, “how did the aboriginal gentleman gain entry to university?... Through the window. Sorry I had to say it”.
Thwaites was alleged to have written on the thread “ITT niggers”.
Last month, a Federal Court judge accepted Thwaites’ sworn testimony that the Facebook account was not him. In his testimony, Thwaites said it was "a fairly common 'practical joke' to create a false Facebook account in another person’s name, and then use it to post mildly embarrassing messages which appeared to come from the person whose identity had been appropriated".
The case was thrown out of court, with Prior called on to pay legal costs, while conservative MPs expressed absolute delight at the result.
Thwaites, along with The Australian’s Bill Leak, went to Canberra to be consulted by the Liberal government about ways Australia could change the Racial Discrimination Act to stop similar proceedings in future.
He also attended a “LibertyWorks” event in Queensland alongside Liberal Democrat senator David Leyonhjelm and One Nation senator Malcolm Roberts.
In the hours following the November 4 judgement, a Facebook account under the name “Calum Thwaites” was used to post a long status thanking friends and family for their support.
BuzzFeed News has previously revealed how this account has been added to a secret Facebook group called “Brockspace”, which among other things includes people regularly posting disparaging remarks about Aboriginal people.
On one occasion “Calum Thwaites” was welcomed back to the group and one user asked if you could post the phrase “ITT niggers” in the group.
“Give it a crack what’s the worst that can happen?” someone using the “Thwaites” account replied.
Exercising parliamentary privilege, Labor MP Terri Butler read out these entries in parliament last month, and suggested it was part of a “coarsening of public debate and we should be very, very worried about it”.
Thwaites then filed a $100,000 defamation suit against Butler for her comments on the ABC’s Q&A and a subsequent tweet from her account that questioned whether the student had actually written the original post.
Lawyers for Cindy Prior are currently preparing for an appeal against the November 18C judgement.
One of the issues being considered is a subpoena application to Facebook, which Thwaites' lawyers applied to have set aside.
The subpoena would compel Facebook to hand over all metadata information related to the original Facebook thread and the accounts that posted there.
BuzzFeed News sent an email to Thwaites and his barrister Anthony Morris at 3:12pm on Monday afternoon, asking about the subpoena.
Morris replied by email, saying Federal Court judge Michael Jarrett had dealt with the matter.
“The subpoena has been set aside. That was ordered, last Friday afternoon, by His Honour Judge Jarrett,” Morris wrote.
“Prior's counsel made some submissions which I found to be, not only unconvincing, but also - frankly - unintelligible.”
Prior's lawyer, Susan Moriarty, told BuzzFeed News, "His Honour ultimately found [Thwaites]’s submissions more persuasive but fortunately at no point did he indicate that he shared his Counsel’s bafflement".
But then something bizarre happened.
At 3:20pm AEST, eight minutes after my email to Thwaites and his barrister, my face and name appeared all over the “Calum Thwaites” account.
The username had also been changed to facebook.com/IAmMarkDiStefano.
I sent a follow-up email to Thwaites and Morris, asking why the “Calum Thwaites” account, which had posted a thank you message in the wake of the judgement and interacted with the student’s friends in a secret group, had suddenly been changed.
Morris declined to answer a direct question as to whether Thwaites controlled the account.
“I am unable to comment on the matters which you have raised,” Morris replied.
“But if, in future, I am needing a witness to prove just how easy it is to become a victim of ‘identity theft’ in respect of a Facebook account, I will know just who to subpoena.”
At the time of publication, the Facebook account under the name “Calum Thwaites”, which went on to impersonate me, had blocked my account from seeing its activity.
But the account has gone back to "Calum Thwaites", using the student's image, with my image showing as one of the previous profile pictures.
Mark Di Stefano is a political editor for BuzzFeed News and is based in Sydney.
Contact Mark Di Stefano at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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