Social media: three major pitfalls to avoid

By: Peter Goodchild and Judith Embley

Date: 19 June 2018

Social media: three major pitfalls to avoidSocial media is a public forum. Although it's tempting to upload and share whatever we find interesting, funny or shocking, it's important to remember that social posts count as published or broadcast material - which, as any lawyer will tell you, is subject to legal restrictions.

As well as that, many employers have access to their employees' social media accounts, and check those of potential new hires. It's worryingly easy to damage (and in the worst cases end) a promising career.

It's very difficult to un-say something once it's out there - so caution is advised. Here are our top three potential pitfalls of social media.

1. Defamation and harassment

Whether as a blogger or vlogger, on social media or on a review site, you need to be careful posting negative reviews online. Amateur critics can be sued by business owners if they believe a review was defamatory, or amounts to harassment.

The law of defamation (libel and slander) is a live issue in the UK. Criticism and review are permitted if based on honestly held opinions. On questions of fact, as long as what you are saying is factually true, it cannot be held to be defamatory - but stray from the truth and the consequences can be severe.

A British internet troll, Jason Page, who abused a US lawyer on Google and caused his firm serious reputational damage, was ordered to pay damages and costs of more than £100,000 in the UK High Court - the largest award so far in such a case.

It's even legally possible to defame a person online by sharing (eg by retweeting) someone else's defamatory statements, especially if you're highly influential.

2. Breach of privacy

The internet knows no borders, and material posted on social media can be seen around the world. However, in many countries, such as France, there are strict rules regarding privacy and image.

For example, a person holidaying in Paris is highly likely to take photos in crowded public areas, and post these to their favourite social media platforms.

However, if a person captured in the background is caught in a compromising position (somewhere they shouldn't be, or with someone they shouldn't be with!), and they are recognised and their actions exposed as a result of your photos, you could be legally liable for damages.

In England there is no specific right to privacy in a case like this (yet), but in many countries the law is much more draconian - so beware.

3. Committing "reputational suicide"

It's not just legal issues you need to be aware of online. The rise in popularity of social media apps has increased the chances of “reputational suicide” - casually posting something that seems funny in the moment, only to realise (too late) that it appears ill-judged and even offensive.

It's imperative to remember that your social posts may not just be seen by your close friends, but also by your boss, clients, and potential employers.

It's common for businesses to use social media to relay news about their firm. However, this can also go spectacularly wrong, as was the case in 2016 for Baker Small, a law firm that specialised in advising local authorities. The firm fired off a series of boastful tweets about its legal victories, which were seen as insensitive to the parents of children with special educational needs.

It lost its place on the local authority's panel of advising firms, and with it, much of its business.

Reputational damage can even come about from something you've posted in the past, particularly if you've since risen to a more prominent position. Just ask Josh Rivers, who lost his job as editor of the Gay Times in 2017 after past homophobic and offensive tweets came to light.

Rather than being tempted to dash off a quick, thoughtless or controversial comment - perhaps during a particularly bad day - think twice before you hit 'post' next time.

Copyright © 2018 Featured post made possible by Peter Goodchild and Judith Embley, associate professors at The University of Law.