The Apple iPad is examined after its unveiling at the Moscone Center in San Francisco, Wednesday, Jan. 27, 2010. (AP Photo/Marcio Jose Sanchez)

The upswing in social media sites is resulting in an unexpected spin-off in the form of an alarming increase in the number of online defamation lawsuits, analysts say.

At the root of the problem, they explain, is companies posting content that is unlicensed.

Robert Sussman, joint chief executive officer of business technology partners Intergr8, said that with the world becoming more open and connected, people inside organisations often contribute to social blogs during working hours.

“This may be considered as comments (which have been) vetted by the company where they are employed.”

For this reason, Sussman advised, businesses should draft a social media policy, to come into effect immediately.

Steven de Boer of Marsh (Pty) Ltd, one of SA’s biggest risk management firms, said the need for companies to create an online identity had become a vitally important issue. But companies were still not fully aware of the effects on society of these sites.

De Boer, who is part of the media and technology division of the risk management practice at the company, said: “Not all companies have fully realised the risks they run in cyberspace.”

Sussman advised business to embrace social media sites.

“The evolution of social media has meant that treating the new world we find ourselves in as foreign will result in organisations being left behind.

“While there is risk associated with the new baseline norm of what people share, the business opportunity therein cannot be ignored.”

He added that the rate of change and opportunity of social networking sites for business had already far surpassed all the predictions.

“The compound growth within the social space has seen sites like Facebook reach valuations equal to that of McDonald’s in under seven years. Never before have we experienced this rate of change. The world has clearly, fundamentally changed,” Sussman said.

Business had also changed and, as a result, the way in which business leaders engaged with employees and customers had also changed.

“Social sharing is the new engagement paradigm,” he said.

De Boer believes that the rapid growth of social media sites has resulted in companies becoming their own online publishers, in order to save time and be able to post content regularly.

“While general liability policies often include cover for advertisers’ liability, social media communications are viewed as corporate communications, rather than advertisements, resulting in general liability policies not being likely to respond,” he warned.

Sussman said this fact should be a key concern for companies, as customers now had direct access to content, and were able to make positive and negative decisions immediately.

“Marketing, advertising and blogging has become real-time. Media is now controlled by the man on the street, with anyone able to broadcast, a function that was previously only afforded to large media houses.”

De Boer said there were some guidelines on managing the risks posed by social media sites. These included having someone overseeing content posted on sites such as Twitter and Facebook, who was fully trained to operate these platforms.

“While the informal nature of these sites can lead to an informal approach to posted messages, they remain subject to the same laws regarding defamation and intellectual property rights as any other official content,” he warned.

Another way to ensure online safety would be to monitor content being posted by outside users on the site.

De Boer said that being able to monitor content before it was published on sites would prevent organisations getting into trouble for contentious content.

“Also, (there should be) a clear takedown policy in the event of complaints, which would ideally include immediate removal of contentious content.”

Filtering and copyright disclaimers should also be checked by organisations, so ensuring no defamatory words were being used, and that those doing the postings were of legal age.

De Boer further urged companies to remember the internet was a global phenomenon, so content should always be suitable for others to read.

“Your comments can be seen far beyond the borders of the country for which the broadcast was intended, potentially leading to unforeseen international exposure,” he warned.

And with social media continuing to grow day by day, businesses needed to keep up to date with new trends that their customers could use, particular those allowing them to voice positive and negative responses. - Weekend Argus