• Recent debacles have highlighted the dangers of social media. 
  • Legal experts have warned that forwarding defamatory posts or WhatsApps can get you sued and fired. 
  • The chances of a defamatory post going undetected are slim, the lawyers warn.
  • For more articles, go to www.BusinessInsider.co.za.

In the wake of recent social media debacles -  including an acting judge’s expletive-laden comments about President Cyril Ramaphosa and the fall-out over a Miss South Africa contestant’s racist and crude tweets - lawyers at Cliffe Dekker Hofmeyr have warned that sharing defamatory posts can land you in a world of trouble.

 "It is (…) important to understand that South African law considers repeating or sharing defamatory content as sufficient to constitute ‘publication’ and, thus, defamation in its own right, even if the repeater or sharer was not the author of the original defamatory post,"  Timothy Smit, director, and Elizabeth Sonnekus, an associate in the firm’s dispute resolution practice, wrote in a recent note.

"So just by clicking share, you could be perpetuating the defamation, exposing yourself to a damages claim for defamation or to potential dismissal by your employer."

Recent lawsuits have confirmed that employers can institute disciplinary proceedings against employees over their social media activity and online conduct.

Smit and Sonnekus warn that posting potentially harmful or controversial content could risk defamation claims which can be costly to fight and very costly to lose.

A key case, the Constitutional Court in Le Roux versus Dey in 2011,  confirmed that the law of defamation is designed to compensate a victim for any publication that injures the victim in their good name and reputation.

The case involved a group of schoolchildren who created a suggestive computer-created image using the face of a deputy principal of the school. The teacher was awarded thousands in damages.

The court defined defamation as the wrongful and intentional publication of a defamatory statement concerning the wronged party.

CDH says that with the advent and evolution of electronic communication, the internet and social media, publication will include email but also:

  • posts on any social media platforms, Instagram; Facebook; Twitter; LinkedIn; and TikTok included;
  • WhatsApp messages;
  • comments on online news articles; and
  • any other publicly accessible medium.

"With 1.62 billion users visiting Facebook each day (as at 4 May 2020) - and approximately 145 million daily active users on Twitter (as at 30 November 2019), the chances of a defamatory post going undetected are slim – in fact, you have more chance of the opposite result - going viral."

"We should have no sympathy for bigots and online 'trolls' – they should get what’s coming to them. But children, young adults and the uninitiated need to be made aware that, no matter how innocently they publish or share something online, that publication could jeopardise their future," say Smit and Sonnekus.

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