“No matter how many privacy settings are invoked, people should not treat anything they put on social media as private – if they wouldn’t be willing to have it splashed across the front page of a newspaper, it doesn’t belong online,” said Tamsyn de Beer, legal consultant and co-author of Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex.
According to De Beer, whether a comment is made on WhatsApp to a group of five people, a private Facebook page or on a publicly accessible Twitter page, the legal action and disciplinary consequences for a defamatory comment are exactly the same.
Not mentioning a person’s name does not free you from legal action. You can simply be tagged in a post and still be vulnerable to legal action. In 2013, comments on Facebook cost two people R40 000 after a woman made derogatory comments about her husband’s ex-wife. Despite not using her full name the court still found the posts defamatory. Because she tagged her husband in the post, he was also held accountable.
Sylvia Papadopoulos, a mercantile law professor at UP, says, “It is not merely the publisher of a post that can be held liable but also a person tagged in a defamatory post. In other words, any person who knowingly allows themselves to be associated with the post.”
De Beer also warns against mindlessly sharing a post or retweeting. “By simply retweeting, sharing or liking someone else’s content on social media, you step into their shoes and are as responsible for that content as the person who originally posted it,” she said. She warns that if you aren’t willing to accept the potential legal, disciplinary or reputational consequences of publishing the content, you should not be jumping on the bandwagon.
The line between what is and what isn’t acceptable to post on social media is sometimes hard to define. What makes the situation even worse is that certain comments are acceptable when one person makes them, yet offensive if another person posts them.
“Generally speaking, jokes about other groups of people, whether it’s groups of workers or ethnic groups is something you should be extremely careful of,” says Prof. Göran Therborn, internationally renowned sociologist at Cambridge University. According to Prof. Therborn these jokes are very easily taken as insults and expressions of arrogance. Therborn has written extensively about class structures, post-Marxism and inequality.
“The best jokes about groups of people are those told by individuals in these groups themselves,” says Prof. Therborn. “There is an old tradition of Jewish jokes told by Jews.” But if told by another group, they can easily be taken as anti-Semitic.
Due to the trickiness of navigating the social media landscape, people are opting for self-censorship, a new study by the Pew Research Center and Rutgers University has found. According to the study, social media stifles debate on important issues.
The research also found that there is a ripple effect where avid Facebook and Twitter users were less likely to voice their opinion in real life if they thought their online friends would not agree with their opinion. The researchers suggest that like-minded people clump together on social media and reinforce each other’s views, a trend that is worsened by online algorithms that filter newsfeeds to cater to our views.
In a time when strong opinions and comments could cost you your education, job, or lead to you being dragged to court, self-censorship does not seem like the worst thing when at face value, but are there important topics and issues that remain unconsidered? Are we stagnating as an international community, limiting ourselves to only take the popular viewpoint, and what would that mean for us as a global society?