Social media: don’t publish and be damned


EVERY time I am introduced to an organisation that is seeking help in establishing a social media presence, I am tempted to say: “Have I got news for you.”

And then: “Do you realise that as soon as you begin reaching out to your target audience and beyond through social interaction – whether that’s by way of a blog, a Twitter account or through Facebook or LinkedIn – you have started a publishing business? As such, you need to understand the rules of engagement, the legalities, deadlines, the ability to listen, respond or react, sometimes at lightning pace, across numerous platforms simultaneously, in order to protect your reputation or capitalise on a business opportunity.”

I put my hands up now. I have never been brave enough to put it so bluntly. Putting a potential client on the defensive is never a good idea. But I always impress on them that my experience as a journalist will keep them out of harm’s way on the social media stage.

There are other reasons for abandoning the delivery of an impromptu lecture.

• The concept of a whole new area of business operation can be perceived as the threatened removal of control.
• Disruption to established work processes or practices may be feared.
• There is a misunderstanding of the sheer scale of exposure afforded by social media.

Many organisations also lack key knowledge, believing that nothing of any noticeable importance can possibly go wrong through social media endeavours that would result in an adverse bounce, either for business or for reputation. While there is no disputing the fact that enormous benefits can be reaped, untold harm can be caused through poor or inexperienced management of social interaction.

To those from a journalistic background, this is not news. But it may be something of a revelation to those who are entering our domain – namely publishing. Because, make no mistake, that’s precisely the collective term that applies to, among other things, social media, websites and blogs.

The technologies that have developed to allow us to interact socially via the web have been enormously disruptive to the professional/traditional media realm but hugely beneficial, on the whole, to the general public.

While newspapers, magazines, TV and radio stations seek new ways to hang on to established audiences or engage new ones, “citizen journalists” and others have grabbed the bull by the horns.

Up until now, they have more or less gotten away with saying more or less what they like. But social media, just like the internet, is becoming mainstream – a billion people all round the world on Facebook, and 200 million on Twitter – and what that means is it is starting to fall under the gaze of governments, legislative bodies, regulators … and lawyers.

In general terms, it is difficult to make conceptual comparisons that assist people to grasp the fundamentality and scale of change that social media has introduced to our daily lives. To say its advent is akin to that of the Industrial Revolution is possibly not far off the mark. To say that your computer or smartphone is the modern equivalent of the rotary press is closer to it.

On a more granular level, it goes something like this: Someone is an accountant by profession but when they use social media, personally or for business, they become a publisher. Why? Because in the United Kingdom at least, the law regards messages and updates (in words, photographs, drawings or film) on Twitter, Facebook and all the other popular platforms as published material. As such, they are subject to all the laws that pertain to publication, including libel/defamation, copyright infringement and contempt of court.

Infringements of these tenets of civil or criminal law can be a reputation breaker for the “publisher”, and consequently a potential bank breaker and maybe even a liberty breaker.

A look at two legal cases provides a useful insight.

The first involves the child abuse scandal unfolding in the UK, which has seen the reputation of former Conservative politician Lord McAlpine destroyed by some people using social media channels whose posts wrongly implicated him.

His lawyers have urged those who named him on Twitter to come forward so they “can reach a settlement”. You don’t need to be a legal expert to know what that means: those who libeled this man are going to have to pay him money. Ominously, the lawyers added: “We know who you are.” They also revealed that “specialist firms” had recorded each offending post and the authors would be tracked down if necessary.

The second example also involves malicious Tweeps (the collective noun for Twitter users). It centres on a football player in Wales who was convicted of rape. Nine people who named the victim on Twitter appeared at Prestatyn magistrates court and pleaded guilty to publishing material likely to lead members of the public to identify the complainant in a rape case, which is illegal. They were each told to pay £624 in damages to the woman.

So there’s the evidence. Tweets ARE being monitored and investigated – by lawyers and by the police. Anyone who thinks this scrutiny of what people are saying stops here and does not extend to Facebook, LinkedIn, Google+ and all the others is living in a dream world.

With these two cases – one involving civil law, the other criminal – we could be witnessing the opening of a new hunting ground for lawyers, who, for some time now, have been hoovering up cash for clients whose copyright has been breached by digital “thieves”.

Already in the United States, there have been legal deals in the wake of malicious or errant social media messaging, most notably that involving rock star Courtney Love who, in 2011, had to pay $430,000 to settle a lawsuit brought against her by fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir, who claims she was defamed in a series of messages posted on Twitter.

In all three cases detailed here, the size of the audience who viewed the messages exacerbated the misdeed. It’s what is referred to, in modern parlance, as “one-to-many communication”.

As a journalist, it is tempting for me to indulge in a spot of scaremongering (it’s part of the DNA). I could point out that, in the first two cases, the offending material could quite easily have been sent from a business account by an inexperienced employee. It’s unlikely, I concede. But it’s possible. However, that’s not the nub of the argument here.

The important point to put to businesses is this: you have to be certain that the material you distribute via your website or blog or through social media channels can hold up under legal, regulatory or ethical scrutiny, so that your reputation is not compromised and your company is not in danger of being sued. These are the principles that must underpin engagement with your target market and, hopefully, a broader and newer audience.

That is precisely what I do say when I am introduced to an organisation that is seeking help in establishing a social media presence.

So what about freedom of speech? Nothing has changed with regard to that democratic right. We can all continue to say whatever we want, whenever we wish to whomsoever we choose. It’s just that the rules change when we become publishers. That applies to individuals as much as it does to organisations. Otherwise, it’s a case of publish and be damned.

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