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Social media is now a standard tool used by businesses to interact with customers, raise brand awareness and monitor what is being said about them. Increasingly, employees are also being encouraged to use social media to promote themselves and their companies; to become brand ambassadors and advocates.

But with the steep rise in fake news and trolling, social media is becoming more of a minefield than ever before. And, as we have seen with the recent high profile case of Monroe v Hopkins, getting it wrong can be costly.

Although the publishing of false and misleading information is not a modern concept, people are increasingly consuming their news via social media and social media has made it far easier to publish false stories and for them to go viral quickly.

Technology has also made it simpler to create fake images, fake content and even fake websites. Understandably, concerns are being raised at the impact fake news is having on journalism and society.

The UK’s House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee launched an inquiry into fake news at the end of January 2017. The Committee is seeking submissions on a number of issues including the distinction between legitimate commentary and propaganda, the impact of fake news on the public’s view of traditional media and to what extent search engine operators and social media platforms should be responsible for filtering out fake news.

Organisations such as the Web Foundation are also focusing on the issue. Last week, on the 28th anniversary of the creation of the world wide web, its inventor Tim Berners-Lee highlighted his concern over fake news.

In an open letter, Berners-Lee called on companies such as Facebook and Google to step up their efforts to tackle fake news and confirmed that the Web Foundation’s five year strategy will include addressing fake news, among other issues.

Over in Germany, the government agrees that the networks are not moving quickly enough. In response to rising concerns over the potential impact of fake news and hate speech on the upcoming German election, this week the German government proposed a draft law that would impose fines of up to €50m on social network operators that fail to delete fake news (in particular, items that are potentially defamatory) or hate speech. 

Given this increasingly challenging environment, what can you do to help ensure that you use social media safely and avoid any legal pitfalls?

Fact-checking

Before you tweet or post a story to social media, pause and do some basic fact-checking of your own. Red flags will include: the story hasn’t been reported on traditional media, you haven’t heard of the publication or individual posting the story, or the website, writer or content (image, video) doesn’t look genuine. If in doubt, don’t post.

Retweets can be endorsements

When you post material online, you act as a publisher. Despite what your profile says, retweets can be endorsements. You could be held liable for defamation even where you didn’t make the original statement. A share or retweet will be considered publishing, so be very careful before sharing any posts which could be deemed defamatory. And (unlike Katie Hopkins) check carefully to ensure that you don’t attribute a statement to the wrong source.

Give credit where credit is due

Social media encourages you to share content, including images, text and video. Don’t claim authorship of something that isn’t yours and don’t breach someone’s content rights. It’s not a defence to claim that you found the content online (e.g., on Google Images). If you use someone else’s work, make sure that you have permission.

Sorry is the easiest word 

If you make a mistake, correct it and don’t be afraid to say that you were wrong. If Katie Hopkins had quickly apologized to Jack Monroe over her tweet, it’s likely that she would have saved herself a lot of time and money, as observed by the judge. Also, it may be challenging, but try to remain polite at all times. If you experience criticism or trolling, think very carefully before reacting.

Keep it confidential

Don’t post your company’s confidential information online. If your location could be sensitive, switch off the functionality that discloses it. Be careful when preparing your LinkedIn profile - details of your role or experience could be considered confidential information. If in doubt, check.

Also, don’t be lulled into a false sense of security that your online private messages are private. Rather, it’s best to assume that everything you post is public. Even where comments are posted using a false name or anonymously they could still be traced back to you. And on Twitter it’s very easy to post a tweet in error when planning to send a direct message to a specific user (even the CFO of Twitter got it wrong once).

Remember your professional obligations

If you’re subject to professional codes of conduct, it’s likely that these rules will apply to your activities online, even at the weekend. It’s best to assume that you are always on duty.

Be open and transparent

To avoid causing your company problems with the advertising regulator, always disclose your connection with your company if you’re promoting, commenting on, or reviewing their products and services. Equally, don’t use an alias or make false or misleading statements.

If you’re posting from your personal social media accounts, make clear that any views expressed are personal. However, even when you are posting from a personal account, you will be an ambassador for your company. That’s why it’s important to be mindful of how your comments and opinions may be viewed by others and how this could reflect on your company.

Too much information

If you’re using social media for work, your employees, bosses, potential employer, clients and contacts could all be following you. Think carefully about how your social media activity could be received. One ill-judged tweet could lead to disciplinary action or, ultimately, your job.

Think before you tweet

You are responsible for everything that you post online. You can’t treat your posts on Twitter and Facebook as if you are casually chatting to friends down the pub. It’s more like publishing on the front page of the Sun. Remember:

  • A social media post can be a crime and you could face legal action. Don’t post or ‘like’ offensive, indecent, obscene or menacing messages, or use social media to harass, bully or discriminate.
  • Likewise, don’t breach the terms of an injunction, or discuss an ongoing court case, or you will risk being found liable for contempt of court.
  • Don’t criticize your clients, partner or colleagues online. Letting off steam is best done in private.
  • Be careful when using hashtags and always check the context before jumping on to a trending hashtag.
  • Pause before making a joke, or using sarcasm. As many have found to their cost, tone is very difficult to convey in 140 characters.
  • Be very careful when dealing with sensitive or controversial topics. 

Use common sense

Above all, it’s about common sense, not alternative facts. If you use sound judgment and treat people with respect, the majority of legal risks will be mitigated.