September 18, 2021

Social media law: an essential guide

A retweet could land you in court. A ‘borrowed’ photo could breach copyright. Here, a law student explains how to use social media safely Supported by

Keir Baker is a third-year student at the University of Cambridge @Keirbaker96

Social media has made its way into almost every area of student life. The 18 to 25 age group is the most active demographic on social media and graduate recruitment teams often use Twitter to find new talent.

We all know that a poorly judged post or message can have significant personal ramifications, but fewer young people are aware of the laws that govern social media use. Ignorance is not a defence in court, however, so here are the essentials to help you avoid ending up in the dock.

Think before you tweet

It’s easy to post an opinion or joke online. But that one tweet or Facebook status can reach an audience far beyond what was expected, or intended. And if you say the wrong thing, you could face severe legal consequences.

Libel: According to research for law firm Wiggin, 46% of 18- to 24-year-olds were unaware that they could be sued for tweeting an unsubstantiated rumour about another person.

But if a false statement causes “serious harm” to a person’s reputation, it may be libellous under the Defamation Act 2013. Famous examples include the many Twitter users who incorrectly insinuated that Lord McAlpine was a paedophile. Typically, this can result in the publisher of the statement being forced to pay damages.

What’s more, you don’t have to have posted the original allegation to get in trouble. Simply retweeting someone else’s comments can potentially be regarded as an endorsement, significant enough to trigger legal action. A libel claim can also follow even where the person is not directly named, so long as they can be identified from what is posted.

And deleting the post does not prevent a claim as it may have been carried elsewhere on the social media stream; the length of time the post was visible for will only affect the amount of damages payable.

Trolling: Anyone who is familiar with Twitter will know that trolling is rife. In fact, in 2015, 25% of 13- to 18-year-olds were victims of online abuse, and five internet trolls are now convicted every day.

Guidelines issued by the Crown Prosecution Service require the passing of a “high threshold” before the law will intervene, such making grossly offensive or threatening remarks or a “campaign of harassment specifically targeting an individual”.

The threats will also need to be “credible”, in that they are likely to be followed through. This falls under criminal law, so it is typically up to the police and prosecutors to make a judgment.

Don’t steal photos

Copyright law supports the fundamental idea that if a person created something, they can decide who else has access to it. This applies to the online world just as it does the real world. The use of a photo or video posted online without the permission of the creator could be a breach of copyright.

Rachel Boothroyd has produced a useful comprehensive outline of some of the finer points of the law. In short, a photo or video should only be used in three scenarios: where copyright is owned because you created the content yourself; where a licence has been granted or you’ve bought the copyright; or where the use of the photo or video is considered “fair dealing”. This last scenario is narrow, and applies only where the photo or video is being used for research or private study, or for criticism and review – both require acknowledgement of the owner and cannot apply to photos or videos detailing current events.

Privacy isn’t guaranteed

The right to privacy is protected by article 8 of the European convention on human rights. UK law also protects the privacy of individuals from the state and other private individuals on social media. However, there are a number of exceptions to these rules that allow interventions if breaching your privacy is deemed necessary to society, such as when certain policing operations are concerned. Advertisement

Furthermore, a recent case ruled that employers could read workers’ private messages sent via chat software, such as Facebook Messenger, during working hours. Students with part-time jobs should take note.

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Citation Information

Article Title:                 Social media law: an essential guide

Website Name:           The Guardian        

Publisher:                     Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc.             

Date Published:          Fri 12 Aug 2016


Access Date:               Sat 08 Feb 2020