Social media posting can have dire consequences

By WYATT EMMERICH,

Here’s some free advice: Be careful what you post on social media platforms. When you post, it can go all over the world and last forever. That’s one very scary aspect to the Internet.

Back in the day, conscientious people tried to be careful what they said in conversations or over the phone. Gossip can be harmful. You should not bear false witness against your neighbor. Rumors were easy to start.

But your phone conversations did not go all over the world. Nor were they accessible to billions of people or stored forever. Making a regrettable comment over the phone is nothing compared to a regretful post in the age of social media.

I have been writing publicly for more than 40 years. As a result, I had a huge head start on learning to be careful about what to say and how to say it in a public forum.

It was a painful learning process full of some real whoppers of mistakes. I learned quickly that people can deduce enormously different interpretations of the same sentence. Indeed, we all live in different universes of our individual brains and consciousness. What means one thing to one person means an entirely different thing to another. The Kavanaugh hearing was a perfect example.

Over the years, I have acquired almost a sixth sense of what subjects to avoid, what not to say and how not to say it. Even today, I run my columns by others and often kill paragraphs and thoughts based on comments of editors I respect.

But the average American posting on the Internet has had no such training. It’s like letting someone drive a car on a busy street when they have never sat behind the wheel. Ugly disasters soon follow. A painfully steep learning curve results.

Part of the problem is the illusion that social media is limited to your small group of friends. It makes you feel comfortable and protected. Until you post something stupid. Then your Facebook universe expands exponentially and viral disaster can occur. For the lucky ones, the damage is limited and they learn a tough lesson. Others are not so lucky.

My children grew up in the first age of social media. We don’t yet know the ramifications of such public posting as these children grow to be adults. Will they be able to erase embarrassing things in the past? Will the technology follow them forever, preventing them from ever reinventing themselves?

Europe has passed laws allowing individuals to force Google and other tech companies to remove search results of embarrassing subjects. There are no such laws currently in the U.S., and Google is fighting this fiercely.

This subject is timely. Ole Miss just removed the name of Ed Meek from its journalism school after he posted photos of two women walking down a street in Oxford on his Facebook page. The women were dressed in a manner that Meek apparently didn’t approve of. Meek’s photo comments warned that Oxford was on the decline.

Meek deleted the post soon after it went viral, but it was too late. Screenshots were reposted and the viral firestorm marched on. Meek apologized but Ole Miss journalism faculty asked him to go a step further and remove his name from the school, saying the post violated the school’s values. Meek agreed, apparently without asking for a refund of his $5.3 million donation.

Meek is 77 so maybe his age let him down. Even so, Meek is experienced in the media and should have more skills than your average layperson poster. If Ed Meek can make such a bad decision and suffer such dire consequences, just think what you could do if you let your guard down while posting.

Ole Miss was in the national news again this week about a Twitter post.

"Don’t just interrupt a Senator’s meal, y’all," Assistant Professor of Sociology James Thomas tweeted on October 6. "Put your whole [d**n] fingers in their salads. Take their apps and distribute them to the other diners. Bring boxes and take their food home with you on the way out. They don’t deserve your civility."

Chancellor Jeff Vitter appeared to comment on the post without using Thomas' name. "A recent social media post by a UM faculty member did not reflect the values articulated by the university, such as respect for the dignity of each individual and civility and fairness," the chancellor wrote on Facebook. "While I passionately support free speech, I condemn statements that encourage acts of aggression."

The advent of social media smartphone apps has increased the danger. Smartphones allow you to post anytime, anywhere. It could be late night after a few drinks. It could be right after an infuriating incident, even during a brief period of bad judgment. Just one bad post could haunt you forever.

In traditional media, slander and libel laws held journalists accountable for what they wrote. These common laws, developed over centuries, were carefully crafted to ensure that the public was protected from shoddy journalism.

The Northside Sun can be sued for any words in this newspaper, even in advertising and letters to the editor.

But Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google were exempted from libel and slander laws in Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act of 1995. Hundreds of years of libel common law were tossed in the trash. The posting free-for-all began.

Social media platforms have little downside to irresponsible posts. In fact, it’s good for business. Inflammatory posts get more eyeballs around which to sell ads. You can bet the enormously profitable social media giants will lobby to the death to retain their exemption from libel laws.

Bear in mind, even though Facebook can’t be sued over your posts that doesn’t mean you can’t be sued either. You can be sued. The libel immunity conferred to Facebook does not apply to you. If you libel someone in social media and have assets, you could be sued.

No doubt, the increasing tribalism and partisanship we are seeing in the world today is linked to the social media platform libel exemption.

If Facebook and Google had to follow the same libel laws that traditional media has been subject to for hundreds of years, the nature of social media posts would change instantly. Facebook would face an onslaught of lawsuits and would have to assume editorial review of everything that appeared on their platform.

It would be a different social media world. More responsible, but less free. There are always costs and benefits to everything. As a society we must now sort this out.

In the meantime, every American who posts needs to learn from the mistakes of Ed Meek, James Thomas and thousands of others. Be careful what you post. The entire world is watching.

 

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