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Durban - South Africans are increasingly turning to social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter to exchange news and views - blissfully unaware of what trouble they could be getting themselves into.
The appeal is obvious: virtually free and instant communication to potentially millions. But the very virtues of social media are also its biggest vices, legal experts have warned.
“Social media is wonderful. However, many people think they have carte blanche when using these social media tools, which is not the case. A social media account comes with responsibility and risk which people need to be aware of,” said Rosalind Davey of Bowman Gilfillan Attorneys.
Davey specialises in dispute resolution and often speaks about social media and the law.
She said defamatory or derogatory Tweets and or Facebook posts by employees about employers have led to dismissals and those made by the public have led to legal action.
“Many children also use social media and it’s the parents responsibility to explain the risks to their children who could be susceptible to bullying or harassment via Facebook or Twitter,” said Davey.
According to technology market researcher, World Wide Worx’s managing director Arthur Goldstuck, Facebook has entered the mainstream in South Africa.
World Wide Worx and information analysts, Fuseware, conducted the South African Social Media Landscape 2012 study and found that at the end of August 2011, 5.33 million South Africans were using Facebook, 2.43 million were on Twitter and 9.35 million on MXit.
Primary research by World Wide Worx shows that 6.8 million people access Facebook on their phones and that Twitter’s user-base had grown to 2.2 million by the end of last June.
Davey advised Twitter users to exercise caution because it was generally a very public platform as tweets could be searched for and read without a person being a follower.
She cited the UK’s first Twitter libel trial where New Zealand cricketer Chris Cairns sued former commissioner of the Indian Premier League (IPL), Lalit Modi, over a defamatory tweet.
Modi had said Cairns was not on a list of players for an upcoming IPL tournament because of “his past record of match-fixing”.
Modi’s followers had re-tweeted this message and Modi had refused to apologise or withdraw the allegations. The court ordered Modi to pay £90000 (R1.2 million).
And it’s not just the person who makes a defamatory tweet who risks a lawsuit. Those who forward them can be sued too, said Davey.
And if you are thinking about venting your spleen about work or a colleague through social media, beware.
Davey said three employee dismissals were recently upheld at the Commission for Conciliation, Mediation and Arbitration in Johannesburg where employees had posted derogatory remarks about their employers on their Facebook pages.
All three were upheld because the Facebook pages in question were open to the public. It had no privacy settings, which was the equivalent to making a public statement.
Recently, there have been historic judgments on social media. One was about the possibility of serving active Facebook users with a legal notice and the other was about one Facebook user suing another Facebook user for defamation.
In August, Durban High Court Judge Esther Steyn made a landmarking ruling that a legal notice could be served via Facebook.
But she warned that her ruling did not mean there was carte blanche on this type of service. It that case, it was proven that all other avenues to contact the man being sued had been exhausted and it was proven he had an active Facebook account. The case was considered to be the first of its kind in South Africa.
In January, the Johannesburg High Court set a new legal precedent after it granted a Facebook user an interdict preventing a friend from posting about his personal life on the social network after she defamed him on the site.
Davey said people could make legitimate complaints, but they had to be careful about how they complained.
She mentioned a woman who tweeted about poor service at a bank she was in because of the long queues.
“The bank manager, who had been monitoring social media comments, saw the tweet and immediately attended to the problem.”