Wednesday, 9 February 2011

Social Media & The Law 2 - Libel

As promised, here are some more thoughts on social media and it's interaction with the British legal system. As part of Social Media Week (#smwldn), this morning I attended a breakfast workshop entitled Big Brand Social Media & Dealing with Potential Libel with a guest speaker from law firm Schillings

Points of interest were:

  • According to the Press Complaints Commission (PCC) journalists are "...entitled, when reporting the death of an individual, to make use of publicly available material obtained from social networking sites. However, editors should always consider the impact on grieving families when taking such information (which may have been posted in a jocular or carefree fashion) from its original context and using it within a tragic story about that person's death". 
I'm glad the clause 'when reporting the death' is in there - it implies they have other sources. Otherwise would we see journalists prematurely reporting deaths via Twitter rumours?  

  • Q: So is personal information in the public domain, eligible to be shared by the press? Does the premise of a "reasonable expectation of privacy" apply to social media? 

A: The breakfast speaker concluded it does in some cases, but noted that a High Court Judge has ruled "blogging is a public activity" in the U.K and this may have opened some flood gates. As the story here shows, the precedent has been set for social media content to be fair game for journalists - the PCC effectively decided that the civil servant who expected her tweets only to be seen by her 700 followers, hadn't a (feathered) leg to stand on. 

But clearly, long before this ruling made it official, social media has been a valued source for hacks:

235 results found for 'on Facebook page' on the Mail Online site, dating back as far as May 2007!

  • So, when can (or should) people seek legal redress for issues arising from social media?
The lawyer this morning ascertained that only 1% of issues of this nature lead to legal action and that actions vary according to:

- the tolerance of the individual/company concerned
- who is the target, is it very personal?
- potential impact (financial being a big consideration)

and suggested it's best practice to find the lowest impact solution (both in terms of cost and negative publicity) and work with PR and social media teams to manage a response.

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