Social platforms provide a great launch pad for enterprises to engage with consumers, but they're not the anarchic, freewheeling playgrounds they sometimes seem. They are subject to the rule of law.
That's the message reinforced by a raft of lawsuits being brought against Twitter users in the UK. The lawsuits should also serve as a reminder to companies that it's important to limit legal risks arising from social media use. In particular, small and midsized businesses, which may take a more informal approach to social media than larger corporations, need to sit up and take notice.
British politician Alastair McAlpine was wrongly linked by the BBC to sexual abuse allegations. The BBC, and its television competitor ITV, moved quickly to settle libel claims. But the matter hasn't stopped with the mainstream media. Many Twitter users, including some prominent public figures, had been quick to repeat the allegations, and McAlpine's lawyers are now on their trail.
According to some reports, as many as 10,000 tweeters face legal threats. A lawyer with Carter-Ruck, a leading libel law firm, suggests that McAlpine's actions could expand the scope of libel actions in the UK by underlining the fact that statements on social media expose authors to the same liability as statements made in print -- in books, newspapers, or magazines.
While it's true that the libel laws in the UK favor claimants much more strongly than similar legislation in the United States and elsewhere, making false and damaging statements on social channels clearly carries a risk. Enterprises that have taken a casual approach to social messaging -- essentially leaving it in the unsupervised hands of employees -- should consider the following issues:
- Do employees use company or personal accounts -- or both -- for work-related messaging?
- Are policies in place that make a clear distinction between company and personal accounts?
- Are employees trained to understand when they are acting as spokespersons for the enterprise, and what counts as appropriate and inappropriate conduct?
- In particular, do employees understand that when they tweet or post a message online, they are in effect publishing a statement, just as if they published it in a newspaper?
In a nutshell, employees need to remember that engaging with consumers on social media is an extension of customer relations, not an extension of personal Facebook or Twitter playtime. This makes distinguishing professional from personal accounts all the more important (recall the social media professional who accidentally used Chrysler's official account to tweet: "I find it ironic that Detroit is known as the #motorcity and yet no one here knows how to f**king drive").
Gaffes can be funny -- if it's not your business -- but employees inadvertently, or ignorantly, using work-related accounts to make defamatory statements? That could be a serious matter, and it's a real risk when employees fail to understand that posting or tweeting a statement is effectively the same as publishing it. And if it's posted or tweeted from a business account, the business might well be held liable for its content.
— Kim Davis , Community Editor, Internet Evolution