Social media and defamation

When the grapevine turns sour

How has social media changed the platform of workplace marketing and advertising?

Social media has completely transformed the way in which businesses – large and small – interact with their customer base. Media outlets such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram have given businesses an unfounded level of reach in communicating and connecting with their target market. And the best part – it’s generally for free.  However, are the technological advances of the last 30 years without any drawbacks? Is there really no form of bad advertising? Recent developments in the law would suggest, yes – there are plenty.

What is constituted as defamation through social media.

Defamation law is steadfastly becoming one of the most important areas of law in the modern world. Simply making someone the butt of a joke may be the catalyst for a lengthy (and costly) defamation lawsuit.

However, more often than not, it is when actions are deliberately made to damage another’s reputation, in which a serious cause of action may arise.

Are the recent developments in defamation law actually a cover up for a society that is becoming less concerned with freedom of speech? Defamation v Freedom of Speech – who will win?

What ever happened to freedom of speech? What ever happened to a bit of healthy slandering? Well, according to gradual changes in the law – a bit of healthy slandering can get you into a lot of trouble.

And it extends to issues much more complex than the simple ‘slagging off the competition’ cases, which are often in the media headlines.

What is playing out to be one of the year’s greatest irony’s, media giants, Fairfax (who you would expect to be the masters of handling their own social media affairs), have been caught up in a notorious social media scandal.

One of their infamous yet prominent journalists, Mike Carlton, quit after a backlash erupted on social media over his column on the conflict in Gaza was purportedly spun in favor of the Palestinian cause.

How is this relevant to my small business, you may ask. Well, if you own a business in society today, you will undoubtedly be a part of the technological engine of social media.  Your company may have a Facebook page, a Twitter account or an Instagram following. Having an understanding of what constitutes defamation and freedom of speech in the context of social media is therefore of upmost relevance to you.

The Fairfax and Mike Carlton debacle raises many illustrious questions relevant to issues of defamation and freedom of speech in the modern world.

Should Fairfax have printed the column? What is the extent of their employees’ level of freedom to communicate their opinion? And how much of that is Fairfax’s responsibility to monitor? How far can an argument go before becoming defamatory? Is freedom of speech dead?

While the notion that freedom of expression is a basic human right is quite undeniable, there are no definitive rules or guidelines in place for society to look to. Who has the right to speak, who has to listen silently, and at what point does one person’s freedom of expression encroach on the freedom of another?

What is clear is that technology is an ever-moving, rapidly increasing, all-encompassing, world-changing machine that is only going to continue to affect the way businesses communicate with each other and their client-base for years to come.

Some tips for avoiding a defamation dispute

Don’t make misleading claims on social media

When creating your marketing and promotional plans, ensure that you are not making any misleading or false claims. If you are selling yourself as Brisbane’s first environmentally friendly printing service – make sure you really are.

While there is no specific consumer law covering a business’s use of social media, there are current consumer protection laws that prohibit businesses from making false, misleading or deceptive claims about their products or services.

Precedent suggests that these laws apply to social media in the same way they apply to any other marketing outlet.

Social media should be treated as any other form of advertising for your business. Therefore, do not say something on social media that you would not say to a client or customer face to face.

Be aware of what others are claiming on your social media accounts

Your business can be held responsible for what others say on its social media account, so make sure you are constantly aware of what is occurring on that particular social media outlet.

If you know that something is misleading on your social media account, and you do not do anything about it, you may be held liable. Establish boundaries that apply to your social media accounts, not only for your employees. These boundaries should apply to the actions of your fans, friends and followers and should be featured prominently on your social media pages.

If you unsure about your legal obligations or rights in the social media context,  contact our office directly.