Tweeting Into Trouble (Part 1): How social media can land NGO staff in legal trouble

Originally written for WhyDev

Over the past year or so the UK, socialist hellhole that it is, has seen several high profile freedom of expression cases attached to Twitter and Facebook. There have been jokes on trial, ‘grossly offensive comments’ and racism generating miles of column inches. All have led to convictions*.

A lot of these high publicity cases have been pretty controversial, rights-wise, but they should be enough for most NGOs to really start thinking about how the organisation and the staff as individuals are using social media. Now, like the good student I am, I’ll give you some definitions:

Defamation – the big one, ‘the expression of an untrue insinuation against a person’s reputation’, regarded as one of the few legitimate restrctions on freedom of expression. There are two main sub-types of defamation:

Libel – ‘defamation of a person through a permanent form of communication, mostly the written word’

Slander – ‘defamation of a person through a transient form of communication, generally speech’

Social media is increasingly being treated as though it were a traditional publishing platform. Anyone creating publishable content for, say, a newspaper goes through significant training in libel and defamation and all the other frightening things they might be sued for. Most Twitter users do not. Editors and publishers scrutinise the content put out under their supervision, reprimanding, correcting or blocking the publication of anything that might cause legal difficulties (or, at least, preparing some sort of a defence). Bloggers are on their own. Even in most NGO offices, the person tasked with writing the press releases will probably have someone else signing off on what they release at the very least. A lot of NGOs will have a laborious and rigorous vetting process for all traditional publishing outputs. Not so when it comes to their personal blogs for the folks back home or their publicly available Facebook walls or Twitter feeds.

There has been some discussion in the development blogosphere regarding the perils of blogging in a semi professional manner (i.e where your blog directly correlates to your profession) but such conversations tend to get caught in the proverbial headlights of employment prospects – will my personal blog/twitter profile help or hinder my job search? This is a topic that is both easily diverted and, from the off, sidesteps a whole slew of very real risks online do-gooders should be aware of.

You might argue that such things aren’t an enormous issue and make it clear that your tweets in no way represent the views of your employer; make use of all thosetotally infallible Facebook privacy settings. Or you stop blogging and do some actual work. Bringing up potential issues regarding social media in a work setting can often provokes such responses.

But this cuts do-gooders off from the incredible opportunities of new media publishing. You can establish contacts and links with other professionals, experts, and you can utilise it to try to improve your actual work. The African Medical and Research Foundation (AMREF) recently utilised Pinterest for something so much more than it tends to get used for – giving the opportunity for a direct beneficiary to interact with donors and the general public without the filters of a press team or bored volunteer a thousand miles away.

(It really is a terrific project, take a look: Sihiba Yusufa’s story and the background infofor the scheme.)

Obviously, a lot of the cases I mentioned earlier are UK specific. As some of you may know, Blighty’s libel and defamation laws are by no means a benchmark for solid freedom of expression (check out ARTICLE 19 on comparative analyses of freedom of expression laws here[LINK]) but such decisions in a relatively open and liberal country indicate a wide-ish fearful perception of social media. This is pretty worrying, particularly for do-gooders operating in countries with fair less amenable governments.

Think of blogging and tweeting as being a part time columnist, even if your columns are limited to 140 characters. If you took on a monthly writing job for a local paper near your work, you would probably restrict some of what you wanted to write and be restricted – you certainly wouldn’t use it to publicise your ‘stress busting’ drinking habit or, say, make filthy jokes about a prominent news item.

Away from altering individuals’ behaviour, there are wider lessons for the industry as a whole to be learned from this. Here are some of the big ones off the top of my head.

Organisations and employers tend to offer training as part of their modus operandi – knowledge management, project management, learning languages, licensing people to drive heavy vehicles – but I’ve not heard of an NGO teaching its employees about libel. Obviously, there’s a fair amount to learn and I don’t think do-gooders need to be completely lawyered up but having a good awareness of the overall risks, particularly in a country specific context, can only be a good thing. People like INSI run much more sophisticated training, how hard could it be to start including this stuff as a segment of other trainings (communications team trainings seem like an ideal fit). Seriously, put in a request for this training or speak to your communications team (or legal team, if brevity isn’t your thing) for some pointers.

Heck, you could at least make sure each of your offices has a copy of McNae’s lying about for people to cross reference…

Social media is incredible, popular and, basically, terrifies the hell out of lawyers. At this point in time the legal landscape of what is and is not illegal online is about as ill-defined as it will ever be – it’s really quite new, remember. Get yourself some advice and, above all, try and be sensible with your very public online profiles.

Part 2 of this post will address the issues surrounding social media in hostile regimes.

* In the case of the Paul Chambers Twitter Joke Trial his conviction was later overturned[link]

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