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Social media posts could land you a hefty court bill

The chain of publication sounds like a legal term that could not possibly apply to the social media posts of ordinary individuals, right? Wrong...

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'The chain of publication' is a term that people need to be very aware of. In the past, it would be the job of journalists to spread news in the mainstream media, but this would be subject to fact checking and the right of reply.

Newspaper publishers would check the content before it was disseminated and “vet” the articles. This did not shield them or the journalists from the possibility of being sued for defamation of character when they got something wrong, though.

In the social media environment, the more stringent standards of journalistic ethics and procedures are not applicable, and people may post defamatory content online claiming that they have “freedom of expression”. This right is subject to limitations though and does not give people the right to be abusive, defamatory or to harass individuals. 

Read: 'Catfishing' and online extortion - Urban legend or real concern?

The chain of publication refers to every person who shares, posts, likes or comments favourably about a posting. This has the effect of endorsing the content and could make you legally liable in the event that the subject of the post decides to take legal action against all of those in the chain of publication.

The administrators of Facebook groups and Whatsapp groups have the overriding responsibility to ensure that they are not hosting content that is defamatory or offensive, as they have a responsibility to ensure that the content is not given a platform.

They will not be the only person responsible – the person who makes the post will have a large measure of responsibility – however the administrator of the group will also be liable. The case law in South Africa is clear on the issue and specifies that the author of the post and the administrator of the site bear responsibility. Even persons tagged in posts may be held liable if they do not disavow themselves from the content.

Be very careful about posting controversial, defamatory or abusive messages on social media sites… you could end up in court staring down a very hefty legal bill.

VERLIE OOSTHUIZEN

Shepstone & Wylie Social Media Law Department 

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