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The Seven Deadly Sins of Social Media - Don't be tempted

Two associate professors at The University of Law who teach the Master of Law (LLM) courses, have put together the seven deadly sins of social media to help aspiring lawyers and legal practitioners stay away from temptation.

Peter Goodchild and Judith Embley, teach the LLM, courses that help non-lawyers specialise in a particular practice area and give lawyers qualified in another country a full grasp of English law. The year-long programme focuses on using the law in a practical way.

Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn and You Tube – we all love our social media. We can’t wait to like posts, retweet, upload our photos and share items we find interesting, funny or dramatic.

Sometimes, we will even find ourselves witnessing and recording the big news story of the day. You have probably heard one of your friends say: “Wow, the BBC have just been in touch, they want to use the picture I took of the bridge collapsing on Newsnight with a credit”.

But social media is a public forum. As users we are publishing and broadcasting and, as aspiring lawyers know, all publishing and broadcasting of material is governed by laws. More than that, most employers search their employees and future employees’ social media accounts – it’s surprisingly easy to damage and, in some cases end, a promising career.

Here’s Peter and Judith’s guide on what to watch out for.


Sin 1: Defamation and the retweet

The ‘#Me too’ movement on social media shows how easy it can be to jump on a band wagon. And this can be a great and powerful tool for good causes. On the other hand, however, retweeting can also put us at risk of defamation. In 2014, at the height of the UK’s media paedophile scandal, the wife of the current Speaker of the House of Commons Sally Bercow tweeted, “Why is Lord McAlpine trending? *innocent face*” after allegations in the media about an unnamed high-profile politician. She was later found by the High Court to be libelling the ex-Tory treasurer. Lord McAlpine then pursued people who retweeted Bercow’s tweet. He pursued 20 “high profile Tweeters” with over 500 followers, and those with fewer followers were invited to settle the matter with a small contribution to charity.

Moral of the story: retweet at your peril.


Sin 2 – Breach of Confidence

Let’s imagine ‘Amy’, a corporate lawyer, is in Singapore acting for BigIT in the final negotiations for their takeover of UpStart, the creators of the UpStart wakeup App.

Mesmerised by her surroundings at the Marina Bay Hotel she posts on Facebook,

“Life’s so good from up high here in Singapore. Mustn’t have too much fun as up at 7 for the completion meeting. ”

When she arrives at the meeting room she finds that the deal is off. Industry experts know that Amy’s firm represents BigIT and that UpStart is being courted by industry behemoths for a takeover, so when her social media post was picked up and shared widely it did not take long for them to put two and two together and UpStart’s negotiators walked away from the deal.

In this case Amy breached client confidentiality rules and failed to act in the client’s best interests with one careless Facebook post.

This is not fiction, a very similar case did indeed happen.


Sin 3 – Reputational suicide

The rise in popularity of social media apps such as Snapchat and Instagram have further increased the chances of committing “reputational suicide” -  posting something that might seem funny or stylish at the time, only to realise that it is not just for the eyes of your close friends, but also for your boss, clients, and potential employers. One single image, video or just a few characters in a Tweet might make all the difference to your reputation.

A (non-fictional) cautionary tale is that of Sophie (not her real name), who inadvisably posted an image of a naked DJ, who looked remarkably like her, as her profile picture on Facebook. The offer of an interview which she had lined up for the following week was withdrawn.

It is also common for firms to use social media to relay good news about their business. However, this can also go spectacularly wrong, as was the case for Baker Small, a law firm that specialised in advising local authorities in contesting claims for children with special educational needs. The firm fired off a series of boastful tweets in 2016, including, “Crikey, Had a great ‘win’ last week which sent some parents into a storm!” It lost its place on the Local Authorities’ panel of advising firms, and with it, much of its business.

Hitting “Send” is sometimes too easy.


Sin 4: Breach of privacy

The Internet knows no borders. However, in many countries, like France, people do have image rights.

Let’s imagine a young couple on a romantic jaunt in Paris. They hold a loving embrace in front of the Louvre, and execute the perfect selfie, which they post on their favourite social media platforms. A week later, Facebook passes on an angry message from a well-known French entrepreneur who was standing in the background with his mistress. He is very upset as his wife has seen the photo and he is planning to sue them.

In England there is no specific right to privacy (yet), but in many countries the law is much more draconian. Before taking a photo of someone, even incidentally, you must seek their permission if you publish it,

Take a careful look around before immortalising your next life memory.


Sin 5: It’s OK to have an opinion - but don’t overdo it

We all love review websites: they make it easy to pick a nice and clean hotel for the holidays or a local and authentic restaurant in pretty much any part of the world. Add to this the burgeoning explosion of bloggers, food and restaurant critics and we are all bombarded with never ending reviews. But be-aware of what you say online – a bad review can make what was already a bad experience even worse.

Bloggers and vloggers can in fact be sued by owners of businesses if the latter think that a review was defamatory, or worse still amount to trolling or harassment.

The law of defamation (libel and slander) is a live issue in the UK.  Criticism and review are permitted, if based on honestly held opinions. On questions of fact, truth defeats an assertion that material is defamatory, but stray from the truth and the consequences can be severe – and global.

A British internet troll, Jason Page, who abused an American lawyer on Google, causing his firm serious damage in the US, was ordered to pay damages and costs of over £100,000 in the UK High Court, the largest ever award in a trolling case. 

The problem is, as with most social media, it is easy to say something and very difficult to unsay it.


Sin 6: Advertising faux pas

Take Harry and Hamiz, fictional YouTube vloggers. They have landed themselves in hot water with their latest jape, which was to spend an entire day eating Jaffa Cakes non-stop, live, on YouTube. In the description they thanked the makers for helping them with the stunt.

The advertising standards authority bans broadcasting that looks genuine but in fact constitutes product placement. Bad publicity is generated by high-profile cases, which advertisers are keen to avoid. Bloggers and vloggers who lose their ads, lose their livelihoods, as the US blogger Jason Logan found after he posted a clip of a man who had hanged himself in a Japanese ‘suicide forest’. It is estimated that he has lost millions of dollars in advertising revenue after YouTube took down his ‘Preferred’ blog early this year.


Sin 7: Failing to think (before you tweet)

Just ask Toby Young, who was obliged to step down from his post as head of the education watchdog for historical offensive comments on Twitter about homosexuals, the disabled and starving children in Africa.

Rather than forgetting something you might have tweeted in the past – perhaps during a particular bad day – think twice, actually, make it three times, before you hit ‘post’ next time.


A final homily

We’ve seen that, whether you are using LinkedIn or YouTube, Twitter or Facebook, one false click could land you in trouble not just in the UK but around the world, for years to come.


The University of Law staff and Master of Law (LLM) course

Judith Embley is an associate professor at The University of Law. She qualified as a solicitor in 1980, practising in a Lincoln’s Inn firm and began teaching law in 1999. She joined The University of Law in 2001, where she has taught contract, commercial, intellectual property, consumer and business law at both undergraduate and postgraduate level. She is joint author of Legal Systems and Skills, published by Oxford University Press and Commercial and Intellectual Property Law and Practice and Legal Foundations, two of the University’s Legal Practice Guides.

Peter Goodchild is based at The University of Law’s Bloomsbury campus. He enjoys teaching especially the buzz of the classroom. Peter was a commercial solicitor until 2000, specialising in 'soft' intellectual property, new media and data protection. He remembers advising on the sale of a Formula 1 team to a major manufacturer, and being seconded part-time to an internet service provider in the early days of the industry.

The University of Law offers two different LLM programmes; LLM Legal Practice (Conflict Resolution), which involves dealing with commercial disputes between businesses and LLM Legal Practice (Intellectual Property), which includes copywriting, patents and trademark. The University plans to launch further programmes to its portfolio soon. This course does not lead to a qualification that allows participants to train as a solicitor. Instead, the course focuses on using the law in a practical way.