Federal MP Anne Webster installed security cameras at her home because she feared being physically attacked in her home town of Mildura after a conspiracy theorist accused her of being a member of a secretive paedophile network in a series of vicious social media posts.
The Guardian revealed on Saturday that Webster, along with her husband, Dr Phillip Webster, had launched defamation proceedings against New Zealand-based Australian conspiracy theorist Karen Brewer over a series of posts made on Facebook in April this year.
The posts, which were shared hundreds of times including on accounts associated with Mildura, accused the MP of being a member of a secretive paedophile network who had been parachuted into parliament to protect a past generation of paedophiles.
According to court documents, Brewer claimed, falsely and without any evidence, that Websters family had engaged in incest resulting in a genetic defect in her seven-year-old granddaughter, and that an organisation founded by the couple to help single mothers in Mildura access education was a cover for the supply of young teenage mothers to a secretive paedophilia network.
The case marks a significant touch point in the real-world implications of the flourishing world of online conspiracy theorists in Australia. In emotional testimony during a federal court hearing on Monday, Webster, the Nationals MP for the seat of Mallee in regional Victoria, said the heinous posts left her devastated, mortified and fearing for her safety.
I have a certain level of anxiety that somebody who buys into this could abuse me verbally or physically, like if people actually believe this the sense of threat is there, Webster told the court.
Its heinous and if they do believe it I wouldnt blame them for having a go at me in the street. Its utterly distressing to have someone able to publicly speak complete lies, fabricated untruths about you, about my family [and] the threat of that given my public position now was really horrifying.
Webster said the comments about her granddaughter had been particularly distressing. She broke down as she described fearing the seven-year-old would become aware of the allegations.
The fact that these things are public means it is inevitable [that] at some point in time my granddaughter who is very beautiful will hear about this and its disgraceful, she said.
Webster told the court she had spoken to other parliamentary colleagues who had also been targeted by Brewer but said she had been the focus of a particularly sustained campaign by Brewer because her step-uncle, the former federal MP Alasdair Webster, had been accused of historical child sexual abuse offences.
Brewer has to date taken no part in the court proceedings against her and the court heard on Monday that despite a previous judgment ordering the posts be removed she had continued to make allegations about the couple as recently as last week.
Webster told the court she feared the abuse would continue and said she had taken action in the court after Facebook had failed to take sustained action against Brewer.
Particularly because Alasdairs case is in process and could be in process for two years I have no comfort that she can be stopped, the MP said.
Webster told the court that despite contacting Facebook to have the posts removed after being made aware of them in April, the social media company initially would not pull down the allegations.
It took a long time for those posts to come down, she said.
[Brewer] was never going to [take them down] but I certainly believe Facebook needs to take more responsibility and be more responsive about these kinds of posts.
Despite the court hearing that Brewer lives in New Zealand, Websters barrister, Justin Hooper, said the posts had been shared on Facebook pages linked to the local community in Mildura. He said the case illustrated the extraordinary power of Facebooks network effect to precisely target a particular locality.
Websters husband, Phillip Webster, a local doctor in Mildura, told the court he felt he had a stain over him in Mildura after the posts. He described feeling deeply anxious as a result of the posts, and revealed the couple had installed security cameras at their home out of genuine fear they could be targeted by Brewers followers.
I look at her Facebook followers and many of them are very vulnerable and I think damaged people that she stirs up to do things that are protest in their nature but some of which are downright violent, he said.
I still do have a genuine fear that some of those who follow her may choose to do things which are not only defamatory in terms of Facebook but violent in terms of confronting us in public. Ive installed security cameras on our front and back door in the past few months just because I have some significant genuine fear about what could happen.
As the Guardian reported on Saturday, Brewer is one of Australias leading conspiracy agitators. Her personal Facebook page, which has thousands of followers, includes a steady stream of live videos railing against the cabal of Freemasons she believes controls Australias parliament, judiciary, media and bureaucracy as part of an extensive pedophile protection racket.
Justice Jacqueline Gleeson reserved her judgment on Monday, but said it was clear that the Websters had been severely hurt by these defamations.
I also accept the question of vindication of reputation is particularly important in this context in my mind it is hard to imagine a more serious sort of imputations than imputations made against senior and respected members of our community, she said.