Could using social media get your business into hot waterIt’s all too easy isn’t it, to sit at your laptop and write something in the heat of the moment – an email of complaint or perhaps even a tweet or Facebook update having a moan or sarky comment about someone or the quality of service received from a business? But these heated online moments could potentially land you and your business in court.

Heated words can end in very hot water…

Just because you are writing something on your own in your office or sat on your sofa in front of the TV doesn’t mean it might not have serious legal implications. Surrounded by laptops, Smartphone apps and tablets, it’s effortless and easy to respond to something in an instant – post a comment here, have a rant on Twitter there – but you should consider whether your actions might be construed to step outside the boundaries of the laws of our land!? It might seem just a tiny comment but it can have far reaching effects in terms of who sees it and what it means for you or your business. Indeed the social media world can be a dangerous place to vent one’s anger!

Leave a truthful and balanced review or comment and all is well and good but what about when your anger or frustration at a situation results in your embellishing the truth or making a comment which isn’t 100% accurate (even if you think or feel it is!)?

Your tweets, status updates and reviews are out there in the public domain, there for all the world (literally) to see, and unfortunately, some may come back to haunt you. If you think the internet offers a free rein to say whatever you want, you need to reconsider – and quickly!

How just 140 characters can get you into a lawsuit!

Well if you have written a comment on a social media site, your own or competitor’s website, or a review site such as TripAdvisor or FreeIndex, you could be committing libel. A serious legal offence. Recently, there have been several high profile libel cases surrounding Twitter, including Sally Bercow’s tweet referencing Lord McAlpine.

The UK High Court found that her tweet was libellous and it shows that you don’t even have to explicitly defame someone for it to represent libel. The offending tweet was: “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*.”

Justice Tugendhat ruled that innuendo was equally damaging, carrying the “same effect” as the natural meaning of words. So the *innocent face* comment insinuated that Lord McAlpine was guilty of a crime that he was wrongly accused of.

Sally Bercow commented: “Today’s ruling should be seen as a warning to all social media users. Things can be held to be seriously defamatory, even when you do not intend them to be defamatory and do not make any express accusation. On this, I have learned my own lesson the hard way.” A social media lesson for us all here I think!

So beware what you write in your bite-sized tweets, status updates and comments on your social networks (personal and business pages), because they are all covered by UK Libel and Defamation laws.

It has been reported that online libel cases have doubled in recent years due to the social media explosion, so don’t think that social media is still a grey area in the eyes of the law – it’s really not.

Even the mighty Google gets caught out…

Even search giant Google has found to its cost that online defamation can take other forms. It has been sued numerous times, due to its auto-complete feature, which whilst a useful tool for most of us, has been found to links people’s names with terms they find offensive or misleading, resulting in expensive lawsuits.

So what are the laws for online content and libel?

UK law is very clear on libel: anyone who makes a defamatory comment in published material about an identifiable person (i.e. someone named, pictured, or otherwise alluded to) which causes loss to business or reputation has committed libel. Some accusations, such as of crimes, drugs, diseases and adultery, do not require the victim to prove damage in order to take the case to court, as damage is largely associated with these issues.

As the Sally Bercow case shows, a person does not even have to make a direct allegation, as UK libel law equally covers insinuation and implication. All social media users need to be aware of this.

Unlike criminal law where the burden of proof lies with the accuser, with UK libel law a defamatory statement is presumed to be false, unless the defendant can prove it’s the truth.

A final thought…

Journalists, publishers and marketing/PR professionals typically receive significant training in this area for obvious reason, yet everyone can turn “publisher” with less than 140 taps on a Smartphone and the touch of a button! Just as I am writing this article here!

If you are in any doubt about what you can say online and the libel laws, take a look at this useful article ‘Can I write whatever I want online?’ but my advice (and I’m not a lawyer I hasten to add) is never tweet or comment online in anger – or even with a sense of sarcasm – as it may land you (and your business) in very hot water indeed!

PS Other online marketing legal issues to be aware of are copyright and trademark infringments but I’ll save that for another day and another blog. Too much legal stuff for one day!!! 🙂

CIM Surrey are hosting a free event in Guildford on 28th November to look at “Online and social media law and ethics”. Join broadcast journalist and media tutor Holly Powell-Jones as she details some of the legal and ethical do’s and don’t’s when using online and social media. Featuring amusing insights into social media transgressions, Holly will provide insight about how organisations can implement and maintain best practice.

Hope to see you there! 🙂