Social media has made it easier for us to have conversations online, even with people we don’t know in real life, or normally have access to, such as celebrities. However, we can forget that a conversation on social media is different to a conversation in real life; the posts we make can sometimes have serious consequences.
Last month (March 2014), an Australian boy, Andrew Farley, was fined $105,000 for defaming a school teacher, Christine Mickle, online. The former student posted critical and nasty comments about the teacher on Twitter and Facebook. These comments spread quickly, and led to Mickle taking an extended leave.
Here are some things to learn from the Mickle v. Farley case:
1. Social media is not immune from legal regulation
Conversations on Twitter and Facebook aren’t like real life conversations, where the things said are often forgotten after a few days. They are permanent, and remain online for a long time, sometimes forever.
In the Mickle v. Farley case, Farley probably thought he could say whatever he wanted, without fear of consequences. Don’t make the same mistake, think before you post.
2. You are a publisher
You may not see yourself as a publisher, but you are publishing content online, and that makes you a publisher. The consequences on social media are very similar to those of a newspaper or television.
The damage to Mickle’s reputation was probably more severe because it was published online, and more people could see it. If Farley had said those comments to her in real life, in front of a few people, the damage would not have been as severe.
3. Online content spreads rapidly
Unlike in real life, where nasty comments about people spread slowly, nasty comments posted online spread very quickly, and sometimes even go viral.
Farley’s comments about Mickle were shared by his friends, who also shared it with their friends, which made the situation worse. District Court judge, Michael Elkaim, said "[defamatory publications] are spread easily by the simple manipulation of mobile phones and computers. Their evil lies in the grapevine effect that stems from the use of this type of communication."
Think carefully before posting online, especially if the content could hurt someone or damage their reputation. Social media is not just an extension of our offline conversations. It keeps a permanent record of our posts, and has more consequences than we realise.