15 tips about social media and the law

Keep the lawyers at bay when you follow these important guidelines.

At TopRank Online Marketing, Monday mornings are usually filled with coffee, the clicking and clacking of keyboards and the chatter of internal meetings.

But a recent Monday was full of social media and the law.

Several people from our social media team attended the monthly Minneapolis and St. Paul Social Media Breakfast that delved into how social media and the law intersect.

Two lawyers, Emily Buchholz and John C. Pickerill, answered questions about everything from copyright infringement and employers asking for account logins, to what photos are OK to post and how to deal with negative comments.

If you’re involved in the social media world, legal issues can, and will, affect you.

Here are 15 important tips on social media and the law that our team gleaned from the panel:

1. Expect to receive the same consequences online as in real life. Freedom of speech is applicable to online communications, but you can still be fired for anything. Take personal responsibility.

2. Pinterest is a copyright infringement machine. It’s only a matter of time until someone uses it for evil instead of good. Make sure you’re aware of copyrighted material. While it’s not highly likely, you could be held responsible for infringement.

3. There is a lot of gray area in social media—it all comes down to the details of each case. Use your best judgment and common sense. If you have a doubt about a post, don’t post it. Once you do post it, it’s out there for good. It’s all about risk assessment.

4. If you’re running a sweepstakes on social media, be aware of all the rules and regulations regarding disclosures for each state. Many companies are playing the risks until the FTC gets involved, as there aren’t many case studies to guide the way.

5. Use short phrases in online messaging to keep your quotation/attribution vague. If you use the entire heart of a story, you run the risk of copyright infringement.

6. If you want to use photos of customers or attendees at an event, be sure to clearly post that, by attending, participants imply consent unless otherwise documented.

7. Facebook’s decision to take down the “I Hate the Pedal Pub” page was more about Facebook’s judgment of its site than for the Pedal Pub to have legal grounds to have the page removed. Be careful of what you post. It’s important to check site guidelines and be aware of what is and is not acceptable on every online platform.

8. Taking photos of people at an event and sharing the photo on social media is fairly low-risk. However, the more places you share the photo (i.e. in a blog post or promotional material), the higher your risk becomes (more and more people are viewing the image). There also tends to be more backlash when you share photos of children.

9. When running a social media contest, make the rules clear and short to increase the odds that participants will actually read and understand them.

10. When using a direct quote, use short phrases and include a link to the content you pulled the quote from. The clearer your attribution, the better.

11. If you posted content that is fodder for a lawsuit, or if someone asks you to cease and desist, an effective way to avoid litigation is to take down the content.

12. Following someone on Twitter or retweeting something he writes doesn’t necessarily imply endorsement. It is still a gray area. However, many people associate liking a page or post with approving of it. If you’re uncomfortable with how your online interaction will appear, don’t do it.

13. When you use any unoriginal content, be as specific and clear as possible. Remember to attribute and link to the necessary sources (especially with disclaimers, rules etc.). Infringement travels, and you don’t want to get stuck with a bad outcome. Read guidelines and laws first to make sure you know what you can and can’t do.

14. Don’t delete all negative reviews and comments. They give you the opportunity to address any bad vibes. Plus, it looks a little fishy if all you have are rave reviews. Allowing all voices helps minimize your risk of being accused of false advertising.

15. You can’t say anything you want just because you have the power to type it. Be honest and truthful. Think through your actions, and if it seems like something falls in a gray area, think it through even more.

Essentially, there are three things you can do to protect yourself online:

1. Attribute, quote and cite: Identify all unoriginal material.

2. Use common sense: If you don’t want someone to post something about you, don’t post it about someone else. If you’re worried about clicking “send” or “post,” there’s probably a reason. Don’t do it.

3. Know the rules: It’s easier to break the rules if you pretend they don’t exist, but doing so opens you up for litigation and backlash in an arena where news travels fast.

Have you run into any sticky situations with social media and the law? What are some questions or tips you have on dealing with them?

A version of this article originally appeared on the TopRank Online Marketing Blog.


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