Social media is with us, and it’s pervasive – but so many people are still doing it very badly.

Social media legal expert Emma Sadleir says the latest generation of phones and connectivity are incredibly powerful, and users need to be aware of the wide impact they can have.

“As soon as you have an internet connection you have access to an international audience,” she says. “In the heat of the moment, you have this instant access.

“And once something has been published, it’s been published. You can’t undo it.”

The law saws that as soon content has been seen by one other person, it is treated as if it were published on the front page of the newspaper, she points out.

“Digital content is dangerous content. Once it’s digital it is out of control. If don’t want something on billboard don’t let it exist in the digital domain.”

Even though conversations might be private, there’s no way that the user can control what happens to it, she says.

Sadleir says people have to think about managing their whole digital footprint. It’s relatively easy to manage you own profiles, but not so easy to monitor what other people are posting.

“The only way to do this is to make sure the content doesn’t exist at all. Treat yourself like a celebrity.”

Users also need to remember that the online world is “loud” – social media messages are heard far and wide, quickly. And it doesn’t matter how many followers a person has: Associated Press might have 2-million followers and a fake tweet caused the Dow Jones to crash; a rogue tweet from a rogue employee with 170 followers went viral, caused an outcry and her company’s share price fell.

Sadleir points out that there are no special laws for social media – the same laws as in the physical world apply in the virtual world.

Companies can be brought into disrepute by employees both current and those who have left – so make sure employees who have left the company change their status on platforms like LinkedIn.

People who bring their company into disrepute online are finding themselves getting fired for conduct outside of work hours or premises for things that happen online.

“We’re all celebrities in the digital age. It’s easy to identify where people work, and to make the company look bad.”

It’s also possible to get into trouble for acting in a way that breaches the duty of good faith that employees owe their company.

It’s not only content that users create themselves – they can also be in trouble for sharing other content; or even for not disassociating themselves from offensive content.

“If you have a Facebook page, the la says you are responsible for every word on that page. The second you become aware of it, you are responsible for it. If you retweet something you are responsible for it.”

Even if you “like” something, you put yourself in the chain of publication, Sadleir says. Even being tagged and not doing something about offensive content makes the user liable.

The legal considerations around social media include defamation, privacy, hate speech, crimen injuria, confidentiality, insider trading, intellectual property, Protection from Harassment Act, sexual offences and code of conduct.

“I think we are getting privacy wrong,” Sadleir says. The law says that if someone can show there is a reasonable expectation of privacy, it is actionable.

“The more you look after your privacy, the more you have a right to privacy.”

Sadleir warns that you are dictating the privacy rights of your children as well – by widely publishing their pictures, you are lowering the expectation of their privacy.

Confidentiality is another area of concern. Users need to be aware of the fact that confidential information is easy to post and to share – and could get them into trouble. This applies to intellectual property as well.

While sexting has become epidemic – almost a societal norm among South African youngsters – and the law saws that if an under-18-year-old person takes a pic of themselves and sends it they can be prosecuted for child pornography.

Facebook has about 16-million users in South Africa – and more than 1-billion internationally. “There is no such thing as a free lunch,” Sadleir says. “Facebook is free – but it’s worth billions of dollars.”

The way they make this money is by knowing everything about its users. “When you get something for free, you are the product.”

In addition, when things are free, there is no comeback. “They don’t owe you anything. These are not the good guys.”

Reputation is a big issue for individuals; and they should manage it carefully. “Treat everything you put online as a tattoo. What you put online today will still be there in five years’ time. If you wouldn’t want it on a billboard next to your face, don’t have it on your phone.”

The bottom line, says Sadleir, is that people should limit the amount of personal information they post online.

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