Twitter just began rolling out a new search infrastructure that will allow anyone to search every tweet ever published publicly. Picture: Moeletsi Mabe

Durban - The recent suspensions of Hawks spokesman McIntosh Polela and sports anchor Lance Witten over inappropriate tweets they made on their personal accounts have once again raised the question of whether it is possible to express yourself freely on social media.

Polela and Witten are not the first to fall foul of public opinion, or to have been punished by their employers.

Polela tweeted: “I trust that JubJub’s supporters gave him a jar of Vaseline to take to prison,” soon after convicted kwaito star Molemo “Jub Jub” Maarohanye was sentenced for the deaths of four Soweto schoolchildren.

Witten’s tweet came when a woman died after temporary scaffolding fell on her at a Linkin Park concert: “Linkin Park is so badass, people are dying to see ’em.”

Some experts say that once you are associated with a brand or a company, then your personal life represents that company too.

But one NGO argues that companies need to be better able to define the difference between freedom of expression and bringing the company into disrepute.

According to Arthur Goldstuck, the founder of Worldwide Worx, if you put the company name you work for on your social media platform, you automatically represent that brand, and your behaviour in that space must follow that of the brand. This was not negotiable, he said.


Vanessa Henry, a labour lawyer at Henry Attorneys who specialise in social media policies, said one could not separate one’s personal views from one’s employers’ views in the social media space.

“If you get associated with a particular brand in your social media space, you have to keep that brand intact, relevant and informative.

“The moment you set your social account with your work, you must behave the same way as the brand you represent,” said Henry.

Both Goldstuck and Henry agreed that companies needed to draft a social media policy to guide employees.

“Social media must be properly managed with a written social media policy that sets boundaries on what can be said or not said by the employee on social media space and the consequences of that action must be specific.

“Although one may have freedom of speech, this, too, places limits on what is permissible and not,” said Henry.

However, the legal representative of the Freedom of Expression Institute, Mbalenhle Cele, said companies did not have a right to dictate to their employees what they could or could not say in their own private spaces.

“Often employers cannot distinguish between the employee’s freedom of expression and bringing the company into disrepute.

“What needs to be considered is whether the employee was making this expression in their own personal capacity or on behalf of the company. Employers do not have the right to dictate to employees what they can and cannot do in their private lives,” said Cele.

Hate speech

She also said that in most cases people tended to confuse hate speech with insensitive expressions.

“Hate speech is words that demonstrate a clear intention to be hurtful, to be harmful or incite harm, promote or propagate hatred.

“Being insensitive does not translate to hate speech; an expression has to pass a test in order for it to be hate speech.

“For example, to say ‘I don’t like black people because they are dirty” would be considered insensitive, but would not be hate speech as it does not have the element of inciting harm or propagating hatred,” she said.

Cele and Goldstuck shared similar sentiments about the growth of social media in recent years having led to an increased usage of both hate speech and insensitive expression.

“We have become reckless with the stuff we say on our social media platforms and most of the things we say there, we can’t even say in face-to-face conversations,” said Goldstuck.

For Employees:

1. Employees using a social media platform should be cautious of the manner in which they represent and talk about themselves, their employers or any other entity for that matter. Anything considered to bring disrepute or embarrassment to your company of employ can have negative consequences and can lead to dismissal if you have been informed of your company policy and agreed to it.

2. Most companies have social media policies. If you have received one in the past, go back to it and read it through carefully, so you understand it in a new unit of time. If you are not satisfied, speak to your correct company representative to have yours tailored, if possible, to your specific needs.

3. Verbal agreement is not enough – there must be written mention of those interests or work that tie into using social media in the event of future disagreement between you and your employer over instances arising from your social network usage and the type of communication messages you send.

4. In a nutshell, whatever you say online should not interfere or redirect others away from your employers’ core business or cause negative PR to them. There cannot be a dismissal if boundaries have been set and you have not crossed the line.

For Employers:

1. Employers should not cross the line and are not allowed to ask for passwords to personal social network sites. Those are private and belong only to the user. There have been past incidents in which this has been requested from candidates undergoing interview processes, and current employees.

2. Companies should never block social media sites but instead create clear guidelines about the use of such. There is no need to keep employees in the Dark Ages when everyday leadership should encourage personal growth through the use of technology and keeping abreast of change.

3. The truth is, if social media at the workplace is encouraged and used correctly, it can benefit your employees’ careers in the short and long term. Personal branding is a must, especially with the popularity of new media. And for those seeking to convince and influence, the spin-off can have a significant and very positive impact on the company where they are employed.

* Courtesy of Daniela Bascelli who is a social media and digital marketing strategist at the Platinum VFP Social Media Studio. Daniela helps companies develop their social media and digital strategies. - Daily News