Social media can be a great place to connect and interact with people—locally and internationally. We can “like” recent updates on Facebook, peruse photos on Instagram, keep up with trending topics on Twitter, and even snap quick photos with Snapchat. Needless to say, social media has become a fixture in our daily routine. Even the Pope and President have social media accounts. Social media is all fun and photos until someone gets hurt though. As consumers of online content, people need to consider the consequences of our actions when we don’t like something someone has posted. Just like in the offline world, some Internet behaviors are more risky than just rude.
We see this risky behavior all the time in the news, when some celebrity gets embroiled in a “Twitter feud” and people start sending nasty messages. While the insults from “trolling” do not necessarily amount to criminal action, some people can find themselves taking an online rendezvous a little too far.
Look at any popular figure—politician, musician, celebrity, actor—and browse their social media presence. Whether it’s their publicly verified (that blue check mark) Facebook page or Instagram profile, you may notice some slanderous, trolling comments. Sometimes though, these comments are more than just insulting though. Making or posting derogatory remarks or threatening people with violence online can amount to criminal defamation, which is a criminal offense in some states. While none of us are obligated to “like” anything on social media, it is important that our comments do not allude to violence. At the end of the day, our parents’ advice may be the best, “If you have nothing nice to say, say nothing at all.”
Where is the social media line drawn though? It can be blurry unfortunately. There are some risky behaviors to avoid as a matter of habit. It should go without saying that a person should never post comments that encourage violence against an individual, a group, or an organization. Even a vague allusion to violence opens the poster up to more than just a Facebook inquiry. Another risky behavior to avoid are comments that are intended to deliberately offend people with defamatory comments or images. In other words, comments and pictures that insult an individual person or their dignity online can land you with some serious consequences. Remember, posting online creates hard, traceable and verifiable evidence.
This should go without saying, but do not upload footage of yourself or others engaging in illegal or criminal activity. This common-sense rule is commonly broken. In cases like Steubenville rape case, the defendants shared video footage of their criminal activity. More recently, Jared from Subway is in hot water over child pornography. Jared’s online activity and text messages were the primary pieces of evidence. Absolutely refrain from videotaping illegal activity, no matter what the severity of the crime.
Another legally problematic online behavior is when users persistently send messages to someone who does not want to have contact with the sender. This kind of behavior can amount to stalking, and a person could easily find himself or herself in court facing a long list of charges. If someone does not want to have contact with you, it is extremely wise to honor his or her request. Once again, sending messages or comments online provides documentable evidence. Furthermore, comments or posts that incite, instigate, or conspire with any person to commit a crime could amount to an offence of Incitement to Commit a Crime, or label you an accomplice to the commission of a crime.
Lastly, online users should be very diligent about their downloads. The music industry has been fighting online piracy for many years, and illegal downloads can be an expensive habit if caught. Technology and methodology to catch illegal downloaders and charge them—both legally and financially—has improved significantly. The best way to avoid piracy, and the federal agents who will charge you, is to find legal and reliable (paid) sources for your music and movies online.
These basic behavioral guidelines are straightforward and for most of us, make perfect sense. However, so many people talk about how trolling—the act of insulting people on the internet—makes a person brave behind a computer screen. A funny thing happens when people feel secure with their supposed anonymity and find themselves disagreeing with a friend or stranger online. No matter how frustrated, annoyed, or insulted any of us may get online, it is important to exercise some self control and refrain from writing anything that could potentially haunt us down the road. A screenshot takes milliseconds to capture, and even a deleted tweet or post can be resurrected to cause significant legal woes.
In January of 2014, New Jersey Governor Christie signed A-3785 into law as P.L. 2013, c.272. The new law provides that a person commits the crime of “cyber-harassment if, while online using any electronic device or a social networking site and with the purpose to harass another, that person threatens to injure a person or their property, knowingly sends, posts, comments, requests, suggests, or proposes lewd, indecent, or obscene material to or about a person with the intent to emotionally harm a reasonable person or place a reasonable person in fear of physical or emotional harm, or threatens to commit a crime against a person or his or her property.”
If you are a parent with children who use the Internet, then these lessons are equally important for your son or daughter. Every teenage generation encounters problems—it is a right of passage in the art of growing up. Some generations dealt with problems on the street, and today’s youngest generations will encounter problems online. Make sure your son or daughter’s online activity is monitored and they know the risks of poor decision-making on the web. Impress upon them the importance of their privacy, and the legality of certain postings. Colleges and employers screen Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram for problematic postings.
Finally, there are some things we can all do on social media to protect ourselves from crime. For starters, it can be risky to reveal your whereabouts online. While it may be fun to tag a location on vacation, you’re effectively announcing to the general public that you are not home. Similarly, posting information about your home address, work address, car, or household items gives complete strangers too many intimate details about your life. If you have any questions or concerns about your online presence and the law, contact David P. Schroth today. A quick conversation could save you time in court, money, your reputation, down the road.