'Twitter is the last of the Big Four to go public.'

South Africans who are found making racist comments on social networks such as Twitter and Facebook can be jailed.

This is according to law firm Webber Wentzel.

The law firms social media lawyer Emma Sadleir said that South Africans who post racist and offensive comments (also known as Cyber-smearing) via social networks could be charged with crimen injuria or hate speech.

The issue of racism on social networks came to the forefront this week when British student Liam Stacey was sentenced to 56 days in prison following racist comments on Twitter.

The 21-year-old posted a series of comments following footballer Fabrice Muamba’s cardiac arrest.

Stacey caused widespread revulsion by reacting to Muamba’s mid-game collapse by writing: “LOL, f*** Muamba. He’s dead!!! #haha.” He responded to criticism of that message with vile racist tweets.

The messages were forwarded to the police by several members of the social network, including former England striker Stan Collymore, himself a victim of abuse on Twitter.

Sadleir said that comments posted on Facebook or Twitter are treated in exactly the same way as comments made in any other public forum, be it on TV or radio, in a newspaper or in public discourse.

She said that a number of liability issues has arisen due to the online writing revolution.

“The first and most noticeable is that people do things and say things in the online world that they would never do or say in the real world. People hide behind what they think is the anonymity of the internet to say things they would never say in the real world.”

The second, she said, is the immediacy of publication on social media, which allows anyone to post comments in the heat of the moment.

She added that a racist tweeter in SA could be charged with crimen injuria or hate speech as defined in the constitution.

It was not unusual for a person who is found guilty of crimen injuria to be imprisoned in SA.

In SA there have not been cases where anyone has been charged for social media violations. - Saturday Star