10 Legal Tips: Avoid Bad Judgment Going Viral

by Michael Wells

Social media has changed our lives and like most things, some of the change is good and some of the change is bad. Social media brings people together and facilitates familial, social and business relationships.

As with all technology — or anything else in life — common sense and good judgment are essential when dealing with social media. Without it, you can inadvertently harm yourself and be faced with social, financial and legal consequences.

I have seen and heard about many instances in which people have used poor judgment. And, when poor judgment goes viral, there's not much you can do to reverse it. The following is a list of 10 things you may want to consider before you post a video:

1. The things you say may have legal consequences:

Be careful what you say about people on Facebook, Twitter or other forms of social media. The First Amendment gives us freedom of speech, but this is not an unfettered right.

If you utter damaging untruths about a person, you may be liable for defamation. Slander and libel incorporate defamation in the spoken and written form, respectively. I read an article about a woman who went on Craigslist to post a rant about a contractor. The contractor then sued the woman for libel and won.

2. Get permission before using pictures, articles, videos or content someone else produced:

Using a person’s or corporation’s pictures, articles or other intellectual property without permission may be copyright infringement.

For example, if someone came to me with a letter demanding hundreds of dollars for using an image from the Internet without permission, I would probably be liable for copyright infringement. Even if not, it would cost me money to hire a lawyer.

3. Do not say or write anything on a social media site you do not want repeated:

Be careful about what you say and when you say it. There are numerous examples of employers seeing Facebook posts in which people have said they never “work” at their jobs. Then, the employer fires the employee.

Also, who can forget the “Alabama Teabagger” YouTube video or the video of David Hasselhoff shirtless and muttering to himself while eating a massive cheeseburger?

4. Be careful about the pictures you post:

Anthony Weiner demonstrated how one ill-advised tweet can ruin a career. Smartphones make people do dumb things.

5. Do not use trademarks or copyrighted material without permission:

It is against the law to use a trademark without permission. Examples of trademarks include McDonald’s golden arches and Allstate’s good hands. Businesses have spent millions of dollars to develop trademarks, and they fiercely protect them.

Unless you have permission, do not use a trademark. On a related note, assume everything written, spoken or on video is copyrighted or possibly trademarked. This means someone else or a corporate entity owns it.

6. Watch out for spammers:

Be wary of spammers on Facebook and other social media outlets, as they may be trying to steal your identity. We have all seen “Tweet-bots” and “Facebook-bots,” so delete them as friends or followers. Better yet, never accept them as friends or followers in the first place.

7. Refrain from giving TMI:

Some people chronicle their entire lives on Facebook. Often, this comes across as pitiful, boring and dangerous. Why do you think it is a good idea to post your plans to be in Mexico for 10 days?

You might as well erect a neon sign over your house or apartment saying, “Break into me and steal my new flat-screen TV.” In addition, this exposes you to identity theft and blackmail, as thieves look for times when your guard may be down.

8. Assume what you say never goes away:

The Internet is vast and things published to it never go away. Youthful indiscretions now remain in a state of virtual perpetuity. Social media is a treasure trove for divorce attorneys. Can you imagine how quickly the Herman “Cain Train” would have been derailed if Facebook had existed 20 years ago?

9. Police constantly catch criminals by reading their Facebook pages:

Criminals like to brag and they often do so on Facebook. Police know this and it makes their jobs easier. Don't be afraid to report something you see on Facebook to the authorities if you think it has merit.

10. Assume people Google you and look at social media posts about you:

I look people up on Facebook, Twitter and other social media outlets all the time. What people say on social media outlets says a lot about them. Before you post a drunken picture from your bar crawl, think twice, as a current or future employer may not like it.

When all else fails, use common sense and good judgment. If you do, you should be fine.