Social media continues to expand its influence over our everyday lives at a phenomenal rate. For some, these social platforms are a way to make their genuine opinions and beliefs public in a safe community. For others, it acts as a microphone for untruths, speculation, and nefarious storytelling for entertainment or retaliation.
Although it is often seen as exercising one's right to freedom of speech, individuals CAN be held liable for what they say on social media. When harassment is taken too far, it is no longer considered free speech. Instead, it is seen as an intention of harm or unfair discrimination by our legal system, which can hold someone liable for their comments or posts.
Different Types of Liability
There are various ways for an individual to be liable for activity on social media, most of which leave people with unforeseen consequences. A few of the more common ones include the following:
- Cyber Harassment - Intentionally and repeatedly harassing or harming someone; includes many different behaviors, all of which induce suffering onto another.
- Offensive comments directed at someone regarding their ancestral history of subjection would be a clear intention of harm or unfair discrimination.
- Defamation of Character/Libel - Making false statements directed at another to spread it and harm their reputation.
- For example, if you were to leave a review for a restaurant claiming that there is a sinister ingredient in the food when there really isn't, it would be considered defamatory, and you can be sued for loss of business opportunities.
- Right of Publicity - Using material strongly identified with someone or something else without their permission.
- Making a product under the name of a celebrity or big corporation without their permission can be pursued legally.
- Right of publicity doesn't always target well-known names; in October 2019, Elite Dental Associates responded to a Yelp review containing a patient's name, treatment plan, insurance information, and treatment cost. When this person complained, Elite Dental Associates had to pay $10,000 to settle the complaint upon further investigation.
If proven in a civil lawsuit, these offenses can incur monetary fines and possibly punitive damages.
Privacy Settings Won’t Always Protect You
Despite privacy settings, anything on social media can be used as evidence in investigations and lawsuits. Courts have the power to require the disclosure of a litigant's social media information if it is relevant and contributes to the outcome of a case. Once published, anything said can be accessed and preserved to later serve as a binding statement against anyone who made a comment or post. Although certain laws exist to protect one’s privacy online, they generally refer to financial transactions, healthcare records, and information on children under the age of thirteen. With the lack of comprehensive social media privacy laws, it is imperative to think twice before posting something that could be construed as insensitive, false, or defamatory.
Social media and its intersection with the law is continually evolving. The best thing an individual can do to protect themselves is carefully read the privacy settings for each social networking site they engage with and make their online profiles as private as possible, essentially limiting their audience.
DISCLAIMER: This article has been published as a service to the general public and, as such, is intended for general purposes only. The information contained within this article should not be considered and/or construed as legal advice. Each reader is advised to consult legal counsel to determine how the contents of this article may apply to their particular facts and circumstances.