Legal expert warns against negative impacts of social media

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Staff Reporter

Windhoek-There are serious legal implications that can stem from messages/images that people post on social media, which can have negative implications in the real world. These were the core sentiments shared by Emma Sadleir, a Johannesburg-based social media law expert recently at the National Theatre of Namibia in the capital.

Sadleir was visiting Namibia at the behest of Standard Bank to give a lecture under the theme ‘The Legal, Disciplinary and Reputational Risks of Social Media’.

An admitted attorney, Sadleir received a BA LLB from the University of Witwatersrand and an LLM in Information Technology, Media and Communications Law (with distinction) from the London School of Economics. Her work involves creating social media strategies and policies for corporates and schools, drafting social media agency agreements and providing training and workshops on social media law.

“Initially, I would tell people that if they would not put a certain message on a massive billboard with their picture and all information, then don’t put it online. But now it has changed, if you won’t put it on a billboard, do not put it on your digital device,” Sadleir advised in opening her lecture.

She explained that digital devices such as smart phones are dangerous because they possess three features; the internet, screenshot capabilities and a camera. The internet offers a permanent public platform; screenshots render transit communication permanent and camera’s document everything. Once this content is on these digital devices it can be accessed by various social media sites or is at risk of stolen by hackers.

Historically, people only had to be concerned about their conduct at the office during working hours, however they now have to worry about their online activities as well, Sadleir stressed. Employers can use this social media information to take disciplinary action against their employee, even if it was posted in a personal capacity and legal action can be taken by those affected by the posts.

“The best of social media is that it gives everyone a voice and the worst of social media is that it gives everybody a voice,” she quipped. She pointed that everyone on social media has become a celebrity in their own right.

Sadleir explained that if any content is posted online and seen only by one person, the legal implications become the same as something that has been plastered on the front page of newspaper. Issues of privacy, defamation or illegally disseminating pornographic material come in to play.

She further pointed out that one loses context, tone and control over your audience when you are online. If you do anything illegal or obscene it can be documented and put online, even though it was meant as a joke which can result in legal and disciplinary action.

Although some people might feel like their right to privacy has been infringed in some instances on social media, Sadleir explained that unless they have established a reasonable explanation for privacy, issues of consent and public interest could be used to counter that argument.

“If you do not look after your privacy, you will not have any…If you have never been on social media you have a higher expectation of privacy than someone who is,” Sadleir highlighted.

There are two things to be cognisant of on social media, one’s digital footprint and one’s digital shadow. The digital footprint is what you post about yourself online making it easy to control and the digital shadow is what other people post about you, which is hard to control. What is private today will not be private tomorrow, she said, so if you do not consent to a post about you being online or do not want to be associated with you then you explicitly state it and have it removed.

“All laws that apply in real life apply on social media…This also extends to oaths of ethics/professional codes, industry regulations/guideline and contractual obligations… Unfortunately we are breeding a generation of digital natives who only know about life online not knowing that these online activities can get them into trouble in real life,” she reiterated.

Citing various cases in which people lost their jobs, social and political standing as a result of content posted on social media, Sadleir urged all social media users to not do anything that puts their employers in disrepute online and remember they become part of the chain of publishing of any content on their profiles.

“You are responsible for everything on your social media, even though you have not written it yourself because you have the power to delete it if you do not agree with it… We need to protect ourselves online like the celebrities we have become…Your personal safety should come first,” she concluded.

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