Musings from the ever-changing, ever-amazing and occasionally ever-baffling Fort McMurray, Alberta.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Social Media Free-for-All

Social media is an incredible thing. It is no secret I am a huge fan of social media, as I love the dialogue and how it connects us. It allows us to expand our world, and interact with people we would likely otherwise never meet. And, as I have blogged about recently, it is tremendously popular in Fort McMurray, with a huge number of people using Facebook and Twitter to connect, to debate, to socialize, and to network. Social media is such a free and easy exchange of thoughts and ideas, and at times it seems it has no rules, a free for all of "come one, come all" opinions and statements...except that it isn't, and right here in our community it is time to recognize social media usage comes with responsibility, including legal liability for the things said on it.

When I first began this blog I spoke to a lawyer. We discussed terms like libel and defamation, and we discussed how things I say on this blog, or comments posted, could conceivably be used in a court of law. We discussed the parameters, and we talked about responsibility, including using Facebook or Twitter to promote this blog, and how those social media forums are also open to lawsuits. And I suppose my caution in this regard is why I have been watching with mounting horror as individuals take to the local social media outlets and begin posting things that could land them in some serious, serious, legal predicaments.

The reality is this: the law is setting precedent in regard to social media right now. Social media has not been around long enough for much precedent, and so cases currently being tried are setting those standards. And the other reality is people are being sued for comments made on social media, just as people in the past were sued over comments made in newspapers and magazines. This might be "new media" but the growing trend seems to be that the old rules regarding libel and defamation still apply.

And maybe you are thinking that your account is anonymous and so you have nothing to fear...except that social media providers are being sued themselves to force them to hand over information identifying users so lawsuits of this nature can be pursued. Even those who are "anonymous" aren't nearly as anonymous as they might think, and often those who use fake names or identities put enough "real life" information in their tweets to be tracked down by sleuths intent on uncovering their identities. Anonymity is not exactly the foil some would hope it to be, and neither is the good ol' delete button.

Look, there is no such thing as erasing something on the internet once you've put it there. It has been archived somewhere, or someone has taken a lovely screenshot of it. Once it is out there it is out there, and perhaps that is why I am so horrified when I see people exhibiting such poor judgment and posting things that are defamatory and can affect someone's livelihood or reputation.

Perhaps you think these types of lawsuits rarely succeed, and it is true many are dismissed - after a lot of sleepless nights and hours spent with lawyers, time most of us would probably rather spend elsewhere (like getting a root canal, perhaps). At the end of the day that little tweet of 140 characters could cost you big in terms of money, trouble, time, and grief - so why do people continue to act as if there are no consequences?

I don't really know the answer to that, but I do know that it is only a matter of time before someone is sued locally for libel, as I am seeing a rise in the numbers of comments that are outright defamatory and most likely actionable. Social media is not some free-for-all wild west where anything goes, and if you wouldn't say it to someone's face (and even if you would sometimes) you probably shouldn't be typing it out and hitting "post" or "tweet". Maybe you should consider every single thing you say online as permanent, and as potentially coming straight back at you, as can and does happen.

And there are likely those who may reply that social media should be a free-for-all where anything goes and we are free to say anything we want, "freedom of speech" they cry - except that this is the real world, not some fantasy where that is actually true. My final thought is this: If you post it or tweet it be ready to own it, and accept that whatever fallout occurs is yours alone to deal with. Remember that precedent with social media and libel suits is currently being set. You don't really want to be the local test case, do you?

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