Celebrities’ social media strife a lesson for us all


[First published in the Gold Coast Bulletin, Monday, June 4, 2012, p. 33]

Every week we hear about yet another celebrity finding themselves on the wrong side of the law because of their misuse of social media.

We’ve had comedian Catherine Deveny sparking a defamation threat against Twitter by Catholic Archbishop George Pell, writer Marieke Hardy paying a man damages over a false cyberstalking allegation on Twitter, and celebrities threatened with consumer litigation over their sponsored plugs for companies.

In my book ‘Blogging and Tweeting Without Getting Sued’  (Allen & Unwin, 2012) I tell the story of fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir who was asked to create some clothing for rock diva Courtney Love.

Love was furious when Simorangkir sent her an invoice for her work under the Boudoir Queen label. The troubled star fired off scores of blog and Twitter rants, accusing the designer of being a thief, burglar, felon, drug addict, prostitute, embezzler, cocaine dealer and an unfit mother.

Love had to pay her $430,000 in defamation damages and make a grovelling apology as part of a mediated court settlement, only to find her former lawyers had filed suit over other tweets where she had claimed they had taken a bribe.

It is not just celebrities who find themselves in legal strife on social media. Brisbane ‘Internet troll’ Bradley Paul Hampson served 220 days in jail last year for plastering obscene images and comments on Facebook tribute pages dedicated to the memory of two children who had died in tragic circumstances. Hampson had already been convicted of a similar offence three years earlier.

While a newspaper publisher can pulp an offensive edition before the trucks left the factory, as a blogger or micro-blogger you have to live with the consequences of your digital publishing errors.

Yes, you can remove your blog, tweet or Facebook status within seconds of posting it, and request that it be taken down from search engines – but you can never be sure someone hasn’t captured, downloaded, and forwarded it in the meantime.

This permanent quality of new media does not mix well with an online writer’s impulsiveness, carelessness, anger or substance abuse.

There is an old saying: ‘Doctors bury their mistakes. Lawyers jail theirs. But journalists publish theirs for all the world to see’. That can be applied to anyone writing online today.

At least in bygone times these mistakes would gradually fade from memory. While they might linger in the yellowing editions of newspapers in library archives, it would take a keen researcher to find them several years later. Now your offensive or erroneous writing is only a Google search away for anyone motivated to look.

If you have posted something you regret, you should act to withdraw any dubious material as soon as possible. If others choose to forward or republish it, it has hopefully become their problem rather than yours.

Whether you have millions of Twitter followers, hundreds of friends on Facebook or just a single figure readership for your Pinterest postings on tapestries, in the eyes of the law you are now a ‘publisher’.

That means you have to comply with those same communication laws that big media outlets have been forced to obey since Gutenberg invented the printing press 575 years ago. The big difference is that for most of that time publishers only had to worry about the laws in their own country.

You have hundreds of legal systems or ‘jurisdictions’ to consider because the courts have decided you are liable wherever your material is downloaded.

That might be especially dangerous if you plan to visit a country like Thailand, Vietnam or Fiji – popular tourist spots with far less tolerance of the free and vigorous expression we allow here.

© Mark Pearson 2012

Disclaimer: While I write about media law and ethics, nothing here should be construed as legal advice. I am an academic, not a lawyer. My only advice is that you consult a lawyer before taking any legal risks.

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