Social media and the law

Social media and the law

Speaking to many community radio station managers, it seems that there is a lot of nervousness about social media and the legal frameworks around what can and cannot be said, and by and to whom.

Station managers are often concerned about the potential liability to the station of volunteers posting inappropriate comments or content. This page sketches out the legal context for these concerns and fears.

Ed Richards, then chief executive of Ofcom, made a speech about ‘broadcasting regulation in a converged world’, in which he said the following about social media and the law:

“Recent litigation, of course, has made clear that the virtual world of social media is not quite as much of a wild west as perhaps some thought it to be. Our defamation laws, it turns out, do apply to tweets just as much as any other form of publishing.”

There have been many instances where people have been jailed or fined for comments they’ve made on social media which were judged to be illegal – comments on social media are subject to the same laws governing defamation, libel and racism, etc as other media.

This is a useful reference from the BBC on some of these cases, with an indication of the consequences and implications of each case: – and this article outlines some basic points of principle: . As a practical summary of this, treat your social media output as seriously as you would your radio output – it’s in the public domain, and on record, and you may be held to account over it.

It’s worth remembering that, as with any such case of legal proceedings over social media (if it actually went as far as a court), other factors would be taken into consideration – including the context of the post/comment, the volunteer’s age, the level of malice involved, and what was done in the aftermath of the offending comment (e.g. whether it was swiftly deleted and apologised for).

Who regulates social media?

There is no dedicated regulator for social media; therefore any action arising from social media activity is a matter for the legal system. Ofcom itself does not seem to have any regulatory control over the social media output of the media outlets it oversees. For example the following was in response by Ofcom to parliamentary recommendations about online content with particular focus on child safety and (in)appropriate content:

“Ofcom has limited powers in relation to internet services, and we do not have any statutory duties in relation to social media. As such, we do not investigate complaints in relation to social media.”

Is a station liable for volunteers’ posts?

This is the crunch question, and it seems there isn’t a clear answer. An organisation is certainly liable for content posted by employees on the organisation’s official social media channels – but the relationship between organisation and individual is governed by employee law (there is no law specific to social media). Different rules will apply to volunteers than to employees – essentially coming down to whether the station is exerting managerial control over the person/post. In practice, however, it’s probably better to assume no difference between employees and volunteers, and have clear organisational guidelines around social media.

Essentially, if your station has a social media policy, and trains volunteers and staff on appropriate use of its social media channels (linked with existing training on, e.g., the Broadcasting code), truly difficult situations are highly unlikely to come about in the first place. If a situation were to arise, taking swift action (like deleting the offending content and making an appropriate apology) would reflect favourably on the station in any ensuing legal action.

Any legal case would take into account the organisation’s social media policies, in order to gauge whether the employee/volunteer was following organisational guidelines. (Having a solid social media policy may also mitigate against the organisation being liable, depending also on what was done by the organisation to limit the damage caused by a post.) The organisation could argue that the social media account had been compromised by staff/volunteers, which would probably limit its liability.

Perhaps the most useful perspective, though, is to think positively about your role as a station and to keep your social media output in harmony with the positive role you play in the community. It’s much better to build trust and experience within your volunteer base than to treat this area with paranoia. Having a social media policy in place, but it has to be underpinned by an ongoing dialogue amongst your staff and volunteers. Also, you are a media organisation, so have faith in your ability to shape and frame your message!

This report from Linklaters is a useful resource on these points: