Media Law for Social Media

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Social media accounts for a huge proportion of the content posted online every day. However unlike traditional media publishers, the authors of most of this content have no media training and zero awareness of the law in relation to media publications. Ignorance of the law is no excuse in most cases though and the savy social media user should educate themselves on the basics of good, online behaviour.

Here is our guide to what to look out for if you don’t want to fall foul of the law:

Family Law:
In Ireland family law proceeding are held in private, or in camera, to protect the privacy of the family. Nothing discussed in Court, including the outcome of the case, may be published. It is not uncommon for individuals to take to Twitter or Facebook to vent their frustrations, albeit in thinly veiled, cryptic posts. However posting details in relation to family law proceedings online is an offence and you can be held in contempt of Court.  It will also reflect badly on you that you have not respected the privacy of your own family or the proceedings.

Defamation is becoming more common in Ireland because of the use of social media websites. It is defined as the publication, by any means, of an untrue statement concerning a person to one or more persons that injures a person’s reputation in the eyes of reasonable members of society. Publication includes verbal communication, email and internet posting, as well as newspaper publication or on television or radio. Ordinary people tweet, post, blog, upload constantly – and often do not consider the consequences or indeed the legality of what they are saying in advance. If it is defamatory, you could find yourself being sued for damages. In November 2011, a taxi driver posted a video of a man allegedly leaving his taxi without paying. A student, who was actually in Japan at the time, was wrongly identified as the culprit. The clip went viral and many clearly defamatory comments were posted about the student. An action for damages is now pending before the Court.

Cryptic or veiled posts that do not actually name a person can still fall foul of defamation laws. Legal innuendo applies were the context of the comments makes otherwise innocent comments defamatory.

For example, last May the English High Court ruled that Sally Bercow had defamed the Tory peer Lord McAlpine by falsely suggesting on Twitter that he was a paedophile. Following allegations on BBC2’s Newsnight about a prominent politician, Ms Bercow tweeted “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*” Britain’s most senior libel judge, Mr Justice Tugendhat, ruled that the tweet was seriously defamatory of McAlpine and had falsely labelled him as a paedophile, either in its natural and ordinary meaning or at the very least the tweet had an innuendo meaning to the same effect.

So while social media users might think that they will not be brought to account for the comments they make online, there is a growing body of evidence to suggest that this is not the case.

One of the most attractive aspects of social media is that it allows you to share photos and videos quickly with friends and family all over the world. The flip side that most people have not considered is the rights and obligations you have in relation to the people you are capturing.  In general, pictures of people taken in a public place do not require the consent of the subject for publication provided they are over the age of 18, the photographs are taken openly and the people do not object to being photographed. You should be very careful that you have a parent’s permission in relation to pictures or videos of minors. If in doubt, don’t post them.

Pictures or recordings containing nudity or scenes of a sexual nature, taken secretly, or on private property without consent can amount to a breach of privacy and you could be sued for damages. Aside from the legal consequences of such a breach, many social media providers such as Facebook Twitter and Instagram will suspend or delete accounts for publishing this type of material as it is breaches their terms of use.

Identification of minors or certain victims and accused in criminal proceedings:
Trials for rape and some sexual offence trials are also held in camera. While a trial is on-going, neither the names of the accused or the victim can be published. Anyone who publishes this information is guilty of an offence under Section 7(6) Criminal Law (Rape) Act 1981. Even if the accused is convicted, the Court might order that they are not to be identified as it can sometimes identify the victim who might wish to remain anonymous. Similarly, accused/ convicted minors cannot be identified. In Wales, nine people were fined after naming the victim of a rape by an international footballer on Twitter, who they accused of “crying rape” and “money-grabbing”. Like Ireland, media organisations in Wales are automatically banned from naming the victim of sexual assaults. The Magistrates found that the same rules apply to social media users. All those fined said they did not realise they were breaking the law by naming the victim but this was no excuse.

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