Social media is a wonderful tool for communication and engagement between friends, or even complete strangers. But as with all tools, there certain risks that you have to be aware of when using it. Protecting your privacy is one of the most common concerns – and rightly so – but there is one social media risk that affects you even more: what you say online.
Is there a social media risk to putting your private opinion online?
Most people use social media as a tool for self-expression, and most legal jurisdictions put a lot of value in that expression. The freedom of expression is one of the cornerstones of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and various countries’ constitutions. It hopes to build a better society by allowing every person the opportunity to be open and honest in their views and beliefs – to be accepted for who they are, and what they think.
But freedom of expression does not mean freedom from consequence. The law still applies, and what you say – whether it is in person or online – could turn out to be a crime, unlawful, or simply something that others could choose to respond to negatively. Before you put your private opinion out into the world, always consider the consequences.
What things do people get in trouble for online?
Some common things that people get into trouble for online include:
- hate speech – being words that promote or propagate hatred based on race, sex, sexual orientation or other listed grounds;
- crimen injuria – being words that unlawfully, intentionally and seriously impair the dignity or privacy of another person;
- defamation – being words that unlawfully and intentionally impair the reputation of another person;
- doxxing – being the sharing of personal information about another person, like their real name, personal phone number, or where they live or work;
- breach of contract – including saying things that you have contracted into not saying, like the content of a non-disclosure agreement;
- racism, misogyny, homophobia – which could have many social and public consequences, and may also be classified as hate speech or crimen injuria;
- common sense bad ideas – like mocking your boss on a public forum.
Unfortunately, many people seem to struggle to identify which private opinions are appropriate to put into a public forum, and which are not. This is a social media risk that is entirely in your own control, and you should learn how to manage it.
How does the law treat things you say on social media?
Things published on social media are generally treated the same as any other type of publication. If you are saying something in your personal capacity, there is no difference between saying it out loud to the public, and saying it online to the public. Your real-world and social media risk is treated the same. Some courts have even held that liking, re-tweeting, or sharing someone else’s content can be viewed as you saying it yourself. This means that you must be extra careful when connecting yourself to something someone else has said, that could be viewed as illegal or unlawful.
In many ways, saying something on social media is even more dangerous than saying it in person, because the proof of what you did could be shared, copied, or screenshot. As the saying goes: the internet never forgets.
If you are saying something in your professional capacity, you may have extra factors applying to you. For example, journalists and newspaper editors must follow additional legal duties and industry codes. But they are still bound to all the same factors, whether they express themselves in the real world, or online.
If you say something in a private message that was illegally recorded or shared, you might have a legal claim against the person who made that private message public. But if the message was already illegal or unlawful, you may still be guilty of an offence.
Why do people say inappropriate things on social media?
Many people (but definitely not all) are very careful about what they say in person. This makes it actually quite bizarre that they would be so much more relaxed about saying the same thing online, where it is even easier to prove. There are a few possible explanations as to why they would take this kind of social media risk:
- they forget (and fail to empathise with) the human being on the other side of the screen;
- they don’t think before they speak;
- they don’t know what is or is not appropriate to say;
- they think that freedom of speech means freedom from consequences;
- they believe that no one will notice them in the crowd of other online communications;
- they feel supported in their opinions by others who are saying similar things without repercussions (based on the sheer volume of online communications, many infringements of the law end up slipping through the cracks).
How can you protect yourself?
The best way to avoid getting into trouble online is to simply be a kind and thoughtful person. If you are saying something in your personal capacity, you should ask yourself if what you want to say is:
- a crime? e.g. hate speech, crimen injuria, or disclosure of personal information (“doxxing”);
- unlawful? e.g. a breach of contract, or defamation; or
- a bad idea? e.g. saying racist, misogynistic, or homophobic things, or mocking your boss.
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