What’s the risk ending up in court for social media misuse?

There’s a perception in our industry that the risks involved in publishing online, including on social media, are a lot higher than in traditional publishing, such as a national newspaper or gossip magazine, because of the wider and potentially unlimited reach of such content as well as the long-shelf life it will have on the internet.

However, the risks are actually no greater than publication of content that could amount to a breach of privacy or an action in defamation that appears in print as opposed to online.

The UK courts tend to take the view that the internet is simply a medium of communication which itself isn’t that different from traditional media. The key point here is that the law looks at the substance of the publication rather than its form in deciding whether something is actionable or not.

With over 1 billion tweets per week and 53 per cent of the UK population on Facebook, it’s easy to get paranoid about what you can and can’t say on social media that could increase your chances of ending up in court.

The Crown Prosecution Service (CPS) is busily preparing some new Guidelines that are expected this summer in the hope they’ll create a clearer picture of what can and can’t be said on social media as it’s still a grey area given the conflicting rights to the extent freedom of speech trumps the right to privacy and vice versa. Currently, CPS Interim Guidelines have been in place since the end of last year.

“Practically, the legal risks apply online as they do offline but they are modest because time has shown legal actions are rarer and awards lower than the news headlines may lead you to believe,” says Jonathan Coad, the UK’s top media lawyer at Lewis Silkin and keynote speaker at the largest gathering of the biggest legal brains on Monday 22 April in Central London.

The subject of defamation and privacy is without doubt a legal minefield that anyone who uses social media in marketing and communications needs to understand and navigate through with great care.

Part of the problem is that we simply don’t give the daily use of social media a second thought.

Using social media is free. It’s instantaneous. It can reach 34 per cent of the world’s seven billion population by clicking SEND. It doesn’t require special media or journalist training. And you don’t need to have been a publisher in your former life to be able to do it.

That said you shouldn’t assume you can behave with impunity. Whether you realise this or not, a whole industry has grown up around you to monitor your online activities and by using automated tools anyone can find out what’s being said about them on any social media network anywhere in the world and take action as necessary if they don’t like what they see.

But this isn’t just a legal issue but it’s also a societal one.

“In the old days, people ran only the slight risk of slander if they indulged in tittle tattle and gossip but it was much more difficult to prove and much less widespread. It certainly wasn’t subject to any form of legal regulation. Today, we live in a world where increasingly most of our social interactions happen online and with a much higher degree of frequency and reach. So the big ethical as well as legal question is the extent to which the law should regulate day to day multi-lateral conversations on social media?, “ reflects Jonathan Coad.

Ardi Kolah is author of Essential Law for Marketers 2nd edition (£19.99), published by Kogan Page and available from Amazon. Click the cover to order your copy today!