Social media is undoubtedly the most effective and immediate way of conveying information. It has opened every single user to the world, and each other, allowing us to feel instantly connected, heard and better understood. But with all its positive aspects, social media has also brought about several risks, thus forcing us to be more responsible, educated and logical.

One of these risks relates to the reputation of individuals and companies. Although most of us use social media for personal use, and many others for PR and Marketing purposes, the fact remains that social media is no different to other forms of publishing in terms of defamation and saying the wrong thing could land us in very hot (and expensive) water.

What this means is that when the publishing of negative comments and/or complaints cause direct harm to the targeted party, the publisher of such (and anyone who shares it) can be held liable for defamation. A scary thought given that with the rise of social media, ordinary citizens who use online platforms are technically all publishers. This signifies that they are subjected to the same laws as newspapers and other news outlets and platforms – aka media laws.

But before delving into the subject of media law we first need to understand what defamation is. In the simplest of terms, defamation is when a person (or people/group) intentionally spreads information about another person, group or company in the public domain which damages the affected party’s reputation or makes others think less of them. Furthermore, defamation comes in two forms – libel and slander.

The former relates to defamatory comments made in the written form (this includes articles, comments, photos, signs published in print, online and social media) while slander relates to spoken communication to a third party – be it through a public medium such as radio or between two or more people (dissemination of a false assertion of fact to a third-party).

Social media defamation refers to a libellous statement which is made on a social media site or a website which enables the creation and sharing of information, interests, photographs, ideas, and other types of expression. These include the obvious such as Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn and the less obvious such as Whatsapp or an online site which encourages users to offer personal views and comments (such as online news sites).

These days victims of social media defamation can act against perpetrators. In the last few years the law has started to come down hard on transgressors and more people are getting rapped over the knuckles (to put it mildly) for ranting their mouths (or fingers) off.

Now, this isn’t to say that one can’t use social media and online platforms to complain or share their views. However, there is a significant difference between expressing one’s opinion or complaining fairly and defamation.

Take a customer service complaint for example. To ensure that it doesn’t become defamatory the complainant must adhere to the following:

Be polite! The World Wide Web may give one the perception of anonymity which can spur the complainant to be abrupt, rude and even verbally abusive however, experts advise not to act on that impulse. The key is to avoid profanity and insults at all costs. Stick to the facts and refrain from using too many adjectives in order to get your point across effectively, yet politely.

Be reasonable! Venting may leave a person who was the victim of bad service or poor-quality feeling ‘lighter’ and ‘relieved’. But, as fulfilling as it may to ‘let off steam’ remember that most business owners are working around the clock to keep their reputation intact and may not even be aware of your case. State the facts and leave it there! Don’t make demands or threats.

Don’t make it personal! Even if an individual was the reason behind your complaint (such as an employee being rude) it’s best to keep the complaint general. Omit names, or any other form of identification, rather leaving this for a one-on-one with management.

Speak the truth! If the complaint is legitimate the truth is more than enough to get the right attention. So, don’t exaggerate or stretch it. It will come back to bite you if you do.

This was the case when a shuttle service company based in Mbombela, Mpumalanga, was unfairly taken to task by a disgruntled customer. The latter posted a very detailed, albeit exaggerated, complaint on Facebook casting the company in an extremely bad light. Not only were some of the statements inaccurate, but some were in fact blatant lies. These were further aggravated by snide remarks about the company’s management and staff. Although warned to take down the post by social media experts, the complainant ignored these suggestions. This resulted in the company taking, and winning, legal action.

Many a social media user that has been found guilty of the same has been handed down harsh punishments. These have ranged from being permanently blocked from a social media or online platform to fines to job loss.

So, when it comes to avoiding defamation, accusations and/or charges the rule of thumb is easy! Think before you speak! Think twice before you write! Think thrice before posting anything on social or online media!