Social media and social-networking websites were created with the idea of giving people a platform on which to express opinions, share thoughts and ideas, and to create platforms in which people around the world can connect with each other. Social media not only benefits individuals but businesses too. According to, 65% of small business owners believe that social media helps them to engage better with their customers. The freedom that people have online allows a large number of opinions, whether positive or not, to be expressed, sometimes with far-reaching consequences. Perdeby investigates some of the negative aspects of social media.

The first argument that people raise to defend their activity on social media is that freedom of speech is a constitutional right which is guaranteed to every person in South Africa. While this may be true, no right which is guaranteed in terms of our Constitution is absolute and all these rights may be limited. The infringement of your right is weighed up against how much your freedom of speech infringes the rights of others.

According to an attorney at the Law Society of South Africa, “Defamation is the unlawful publication … of a defamatory statement concerning [someone], which has the effect of injuring [the person’s] reputation.” Someone’s reputation is considered to have been injured “if the statement tends to lower [him or her] in the estimation of right-thinking members of society.” According to this definition, any statements made on social networks about a person which injure that person’s reputation are considered to be defamation.

Many people may not consider their harsh comments on social networks to be defamation. However, the simple act of clicking the “post” button on Facebook is an act of publishing because your intention is for other people to read your status or comment. The same applies to tweeting and retweeting something on Twitter. By retweeting something that was posted by another person, you may also be held liable for publishing their opinion.

Last year, Liam Stacey, a student from Swansea University in Wales, made racist comments about a football player on Twitter, after which he was suspended from the university and given a prison sentence. Trying to defend himself, Stacey simply said, “I had had a lot to drink.”

The negative side of social media is that despite the main point of many of these sites being to bring people closer together, it can also go the opposite way by separating people as they differ in opinion, belief or political affiliation.

The recent Oscar Pistorius saga is an example of how social media can be used in a way that distorts the truth and causes the integrity of journalism to be undermined. When the news of Reeva Steenkamp’s shooting broke on the morning of 14 February, a media frenzy began on social-media websites about how the shooting had occurred. By the end of the day, local and international news agencies had generated different versions of the story, with the result being that there was no clarity on the actual series of events.

Social media and other online platforms have grown and come a long way since the days of MySpace and Friendster. These websites have evolved over the years and now, more than ever, play a bigger role in our lives. Last year, Chatterbox Digital compiled social-media statistics for South Africa, the results of which prove that an increasing number of South Africans are actively involved on social media platforms. The study revealed that 91% of South Africans with an internet connection had Facebook accounts and that there were over 405 000 active South African Twitter accounts in 2012. Whether it is to connect with old friends, to make new friends or to keep up to date with the latest news stories, there is no doubt that South Africans are becoming more reliant on quicker, more convenient means of communication.

Something as dynamic as the internet may seem to be uncontrollable by laws. However, in recent years, there has been a need for lawmakers around the world to create and enforce legislation in order to govern people’s illegal behaviour online. These attempts have not always been successful, as in the case of Max Mosley, the former president of the Formula One governing body, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile. In 2008, a video was published by News of the World in which the high-profile businessman was filmed performing sadomasochistic acts with female prostitutes. When Mosley approached the court for an interdict to stop the publication of the video, the judge who was hearing the case stated that the video had already been viewed and shared by thousands of people online, rendering the interdict redundant.

“So what?” you may think, “I can always create a false account and swear at all the people on my timeline. No one will ever know it was me.” Unfortunately, it is possible to de-anonymise social networks. A 2009 paper by Arvind Narayanan, a PhD student at the University of Texas, reveals that “anonymity is not sufficient for privacy when dealing with social networks.” It is possible to identify Twitter accounts based on different data sources. This method can also be used to identify anonymous users on other social networks as well as phone call records, academic records and many others.

While you may exercise your freedom of expression on social media, it is becoming harder to treat social media as the notice board on which you can post every thought which pops into your mind. Emma Sadleir, social media lawyer and associate at Webber Wentzel, sums this up in an interview with Carte Blanche: “If you wouldn’t be prepared to put your photograph and your name on a massive billboard in Sandton City and have the content that you post online on that billboard, then don’t tweet it, don’t Facebook it, because the effect is exactly the same.”

Photo: Eleanor Harding 

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