Viewpoint: Delving Into Social Media Law: Business Issues And Risks

0711viewpointPeople are social animals. We want to belong,  share our feelings and influence other people. Social media has our names all over it. Today, through texts, tweets, blogs, wikis, Facebook, LinkedIn, YouTube and the like, we can interact, network, communicate and exchange information with individuals and entities worldwide.

Sometimes, shared information originates within the workplace. That opens up the potential for employees to express views, opinions and facts that can generate unwelcome consequences. If such information turns out to be false, derogatory or damaging, things get dicey. Since the new social media is more powerful—
and more attractive—than “old” media, more attention needs to be paid to it by employees and employers. Furthermore, if social media is used for business-related purposes, it should be analyzed, supervised, managed and monitored. Let’s examine various issues (and risks) associated with this virtual frontier.

In the not-too-distant past, people received much of their news and information via newspapers, TV, radio and publications like Maintenance Technology.
Readers/viewers/listeners were passive: They merely needed to absorb. Other than letters to editors, etc., few outlets for response existed. But now, almost
everybody is capable of receiving and broadly distribut-ing information. They can create their own content using a variety of tools—without intervention by anyone
and share it with an audience of millions. Today’s social media allows for greater reach, accessibility, usability, immediacy and permanence than anything previously available (or ever imagined by many of us).

Reach means that the content or subject matter can be local or global or both. Countless people on the planet—friend or foe—can be “in the loop.” They could be your partners, your customers, your employees or your competitors. They may intend you no harm or may have more nefarious intentions.

Accessibility means that you no longer need to own a printing press, publishing house or broadcast outlet to deliver your “message” just the way you want it.
Widespread communication is open all.

Usability means that whether you have no skills, low skills or high skills in the area of social media tools, you can still have your say on a subject. Communication has become a virtual “free for all.”

Immediacy means you can think it, write it or speak it (whatever “it” may be) and—presto—it’s out there for public consumption: You’re exposed. Forget trying to erase or delete. Instantaneously, the world knows what you thought, said or did.

Permanence is self-explanatory. Removal is not an option. An image, event or response isn’t just “stuck” in people’s minds, it’s accessible for review 24/7/365. Unlike “old” media, there are no editors, rewrite people and other “filters.” There’s typically no time delay for due consideration and reflection. The nature of social media also makes it easy for lawyers to scan for libel, slander and other legal issues.

These days, any employee—in the absence of policies, training or common sense—may just speak out. That can pose a problem for the employer. Someone who feels harmed—in any way—by the employee’s communication may seek counsel. People still sue.

Social media is clearly a double-edged sword—sometimes helpful and productive, sometimes dangerous and unproductive. We’ll delve deeper into its legal ramifications for businesses in an upcoming article. The law has only recently begun playing catch up to this growing phenomenon. Buckle your seatbelts. We’re in for a wild ride. MT

A frequent contributor to MT, Steve Shaiman is an attorney is based in the Philadelphia, PA, area.

The opinions expressed in this Viewpoint section are those of the author, and don’t necessarily reflect those of the staff and management of Maintenance Technology magazine.


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