/ Technology

Twitter, Facebook and the law – how legal is your social life?

So-and-so’s a total fraud, isn’t he? Who’s up for a riot next week? I love social media, but it isn’t only there for good. When the good turns ugly, how do people know whether they’re playing by the rules?

Have you ever said something libellous? You might be surprised at how easy it is to do so by accident. At Which? we have lawyers to check we’re not saying anything defamatory. And that doesn’t just mean our publications – we sometimes get our Twitter and Facebook accounts checked too.

To tweet or not to tweet

If I’m annoyed about something I’ll be quick to voice an opinion. But having had libel training, I’ll be very careful about the words I use. Any idea which of the following sentences would be OK?

  • ‘[Name of company] sold me a total dud. Why do they deliberately rip me off like this?’
  • ‘I just bought [X] from [Name of company] and it doesn’t work. I’m so p***ed off.’

Until I started working at Which? I’d have said both were fine – they’re my opinions about the company after all. But now I’d be very wary about the first one. Why? In saying ‘deliberately rip me off’ it could be construed that I’m accusing them of fraud.

Want to do a crime? #riot

And of course it’s not just libel that can get you into hot water. People have been convicted for inciting disorder, harassment and sending ‘menacing communications’ over social media.

Despite an appeal, the recent sentences imposed on two men for inciting disorder on Facebook have been upheld. And as all dedicated Twitter users know, you should never joke about blowing up an airport, even in jest – a man who did this was fined over £1,000 and now has a criminal record.

Is your boss looking?

And although it’s not strictly a legal issue, let’s not forget the often complicated rules imposed by companies on their employees’ use of social media. Understandably, no company wants its employees saying rude things about their boss on Facebook.

But do you know exactly what your company proscribes? Some, like the BBC, will keep their noses out of your private social media activity. Others will discipline you for criticising them even if your account is private and locked down.

In a recent case, an Apple employee was fired for criticising the company and its products on Facebook. He appealed the decision, claiming that the Human Rights Act gave him a ‘right to a private life’. His appeal was rejected by the judge, who ruled that because the posts could be copied at some point they were technically not private comments.

Do you know the rules?

But people say this sort of stuff all the time – for most social media is an online version of the chit chat you have in the pub. We slander, defame, incite, joke, rant and swear all the time – it doesn’t mean we should all be fired, or arrested.

I think we need a bit of guidance, and yes I think we also need clearer and simpler rules about what could get us into hot water on the net. After all, what use are the laws we have at the moment if no one understands or knows about them?

Do you think we need laws that specifically apply to social media? Or should we be given more guidance to the general public on the implications of chatting online? Leave your comments below, but remember that Which? Conversation is a public blog, so keep your libel to yourself.


The last thing we need is more “guidance”, apart from “don’t publish your life on facebook” 🙂

You can see this sort of thing working on message forums too. I once slated a company for making a cr@p sounding snare for a high price (£600 for 1 drum). I was then practically chased by one of the owners of said company hoping to try and “make a difference”. Considering that all they told me to do was to take it back to the shop I got it from and order another one, they certainly didn’t make a difference at all.

All it said to me was that companies see the increased power of opinions on internet forums and are scared witless thereon. I don’t know about you but having a company owner “stalk” you after you’ve blatantly bought a defective product really annoys me. After being ripped off it is your duty as a consumer to tell everyone you know how over-rated and over-priced a companies products can be. The internet gave us a platform to vent these concerns, yet they are now being suppressed almost at will.

It is the same with almost every other product where a forum exists, hijacked now by the corporate masses (and their agencies) so that you can only say wonderful things about the company, oh joy! Is this not eroding our consumer rights?

I see this site working in the same way when I slagged off ebookers not long ago. Everyone is so desperate to save face that they themselves hijack a website supposedly for consumers and members of Which? to voice their opinions on matters that affect them. If companies are circling just waiting to jump down peoples throats at the first chance possible, then there doesn’t seem much point to it at all.

I have to say that Which? certainly mind their comments well in the face of loudmouths like me though! 😀

I think a good example of a company not caring about what its employees say (in comparison to Apple) is Google, which allowed a comment criticising Google+ from a publicly known Google employee to stay up on its own social network Google+! http://blogs.wsj.com/digits/2011/10/12/google-engineer-goofs-makes-google-criticism-public/

Many companies actually accept criticism on their products, as Nikki’s already written about the importance of Twitter for customer service, though it’d be better if they listened more! https://conversation.which.co.uk/consumer-rights/companies-arent-listening/

Also we welcome companies comments here on Convo, Dean, because it gives you a chance to give your opinion about them, and them the chance to answer back. If you don’t agree with what they say, then feel free to tell them here (libel permitting!) And we don’t accept advertising comments, so it really is just for them to join in the debate.

Robert says:
8 November 2011

I think that Facebook comments and Twitter updates are – like blog posts – a form of publishing. If we separate out online chat from offline ‘traditional’ publishing then you create a two tier system, where established publishers can claim some legitimacy over insurgent/upstart online writers. They may even begin to argue for special priveleges as a result (they have them already in the form of lobby passes, etc).

However, I think you can reconcile this with the common sense view that a twitter comment is not the same as a front page splash. *Context*’is everything, and the law should be sophisticated enough to take this into account. It’s a really thorny issue though – as always, technology moves faster than the law, which has to play catch up. In general I think a noisy, bolshy and sometimes offensive democracy, where things said can sometimes be wrong and defamatory, is much better than a quiet, reverent and deferent system. Those who wield power can only be called to account in the former system.

dc uk says:
8 June 2012

i was sacked for asda for this very thing i recived a letter telling me they would stop my sick pay after a work related injury and a lot of questionable treatment in my eyes, – any way i put a clip of the letter on facebook to show my gf mainly and said are they trying to take the p**s (as i belived the reasons given were false,) ….. it turned out asda had spys that classed this as gross misconduct, – for posting inapropiate material on a social sight, and coments that would bring the company into disrepute, i was never asked to amend or remove the post and i never named or slated any one or the company there arguement was others may know where i worked, (i didnt think i was doing any thing wrong and all i would have wanted was some help and advice)
my appeals and compaints were ignored as they were before, it seems you could say something symple like ive had a bad day– and if they want to relate it to work they can sack you over it
no freedom of speach unless you can pay for it! (in the parst ive often prased the company but counts for nothing)