The Trouble with Social Media

It is increasingly rare these days for individuals and businesses not to have some involvement in social media, through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn or YouTube. Facebook has almost 1 billion users worldwide and the number of active Twitter users is steadily increasing, reaching 140 million last year. For many of us in the UK, interaction through virtual communities has become part of our everyday lives.

Yet we are all still essentially getting to grips with the largely public nature of social media. What standards of behaviour are we expected to adhere to? To what extent are the things we post on, say Facebook, private? And where does the right to free speech end?

Recent high profile cases have seen some people being prosecuted for comments made on social media platforms. One example is the boy arrested during the Olympics for sending abusive messages via Twitter to the diver, Tom Daley. According to British police figures, complaints to the police involving social media have increased by 780 per cent over the last 4 years. Most seem to involve allegations of harassment, stalking, fraud or threats of violence.

Relationship breakdown, neighbour disputes, disagreements at work or school, familial rifts; these are some of the most common situations in which people complain to their solicitor that they are being harassed, bullied, threatened, defamed or discriminated against via social media. Increasingly, courts are being presented with pages of print outs showing comments made online about one person by another, and are having to decide what is to be done about it.

The use of social media has also become somewhat of a hot topic within employment law. Recent cases have seen employees disciplined or even dismissed for posting derogatory comments about colleagues or their employer, disclosing confidential information, or for being caught at a social event while supposedly off sick. Employers have also found themselves sued over comments posted online by one of their employees about another.

The point to be garnered from this is simply that we all need to exercise some caution when it comes to the way in which we use social media. Social networking can be fun, rewarding and informative. And yes, we all have a right to free speech and to privacy. However, there are limits to those rights and there is a very fine line between fair comment and illegal act. Our advice is simply to heed a gentle warning to think before you post.

by Kim Hurley from the Wisbech office