Nicola Mawson. Picture: Matthews Baloyi
We can’t police the internet, but we need guidelines and rules for what’s right, and wrong, on social media, writes Nicola Mawson.

There's yet another ruckus about a social media gaffe, and this time it’s none other than Helen Zille, the premier of the Western Cape. Zille really put her foot in her mouth when she tweeted, while waiting for a plane back to Cape Town: “For those claiming legacy of colonialism was only negative, think of our independent judiciary, transport infrastructure, piped water, etc.

“Would we have had a transition into specialised health care and medication without colonial influence? Just be honest, please.” She certainly took some flak from that tweet: “Getting on to an aeroplane now and won’t get on to the wi-fi, so that I can cut off those who think EVERY aspect of colonial legacy was bad.” And then apologised: “I apologise unreservedly for a tweet that may have come across as a defence of colonialism. It was not.”

Zille is not alone. We’ve had the likes of Penny Sparrow putting her foot in it firmly, taking to Facebook to proclaim: “These monkeys that are allowed to be released on New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day on to public beaches, towns, etc, obviously have no education whatsoever and to allow them loose is inviting huge dirt and discomfort to others.” Sparrow plead guilty to a charge of criminal injuria, and was fined R5000, as well as being ordered to pay R150000 to the Oliver and Adelaide Tambo Foundation for hate speech.

And then there’s Obatala Mcambi, who posted on Facebook: “I use my guns to rob and kill Indians & Whites. Please fellas, join me, we have to rape their kids with AIDS virus too!” (sic). He later posted “Kill the pigs.” Social cohesion advocate and anti-crime activist Yusuf Abramjee has laid criminal charges, and given police copies of the man’s Facebook profile and screen shots of the posts, and now we wait to see what happens next.

The people who have gaffed on social media are not limited to this handful of examples. And it’s become a very scary place to mess up, because it’s (mostly) in the public eye. I recently caught up with a friend of mine whom I hadn’t seen in ages. She also has a media background and told me she’s too scared to post anything on Facebook, other than pics of her kids.

And her page is closed to the public - so it’s not open to anyone who isn’t a friend.

Why is this the case? Because she fears a backlash, and is concerned that it may be an unwarranted one. She also questions where freedom of speech has gone.

Let’s face it, Zille should have known better - she has a journalism background, knows the law, knows that her tweets would have incited South Africans, and now she could be hauled in front of a disciplinary panel and - potentially - expelled from the DA. We’ll have to wait and see what the outcome of that is.

However, not everyone on social media knows just how far its reach is, or to double-check settings, or what the unintended consequences of a post may be.

That, I suspect, is where many of us go wrong. I suspect a lot of us on social media don’t realise the ramifications of what we post. All of this begs the question: what punishment fits these “crimes”. And I use quotation marks because, in many cases, they are not crimes in the true sense of the word, but matters of opinion. Opinion that your boss may or may not agree with, and may be against company policy. This is why companies need social media policies. And they need to make sure every single staff member knows - and understands - the contents of that policy.

Simply putting something up on the intranet doesn’t cut it. And staff should be trained in how to use social media, too, especially if they are on the frontline.

Because this is becoming a very blurred line. It’s not possible to police the internet, but we need guidelines and rules for what’s right, and wrong, on social media.

Nicola Mawson is the online editor of Business Report. Follow her on Twitter @NicolaMawson or Business Report @busrep.