Topic 4: Freedom of Speech vs. ‘Twibel’

This video provides an introduction to the relationship between free speech and social media.

“Context is everything” – Director of Public Prosecutions.

As social media becomes increasingly prominent, the boundary between an individual’s professional and social life becomes gradually blurred. In Topic 3, I discussed how, depending on content, the use of social media platforms by employers and potential employees could either increase or decrease job prospects. However, it is important to highlight that once you have a job, the use of social media by both these parties does not cease.

Social media can be an effective and cheap platform for mass marketing however; it can also manufacture ethical challenges. Employees’ personal opinions in relation to the company they work for, expressed through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, tend to place companies in a difficult position – they are required to permit free speech but must also maintain a good reputation.

After a long day at work, having dealt with miserable customers and not being paid nearly enough for all the hassle, sometimes you have to vent – for some, their first port of call is Facebook. However, as soon as you mention your employer or company name you become responsible for libel defamation. Ideally, companies would monitor their employees’ use of social media in order to prevent this. However ethically, this is challenging without limiting their freedom of speech (IBE, 2011).

Though in the past libel defamation was more frequent in newspapers, it is becoming increasingly present on social media platforms. The video below highlights the gravity of what at the time seemed like a menial tweet.

In the UK the Smith vs. Trafford Housing Trust case, Smith was demoted for his Facebook comments against gay marriage (Henchoz, 2012). As his Facebook page referred to him as an employee of the Trust, other employees as well as individuals on his friends list could see his post. This led to the Trust claiming that his actions brought them into disrepute, despite his post being unrelated to the Trust and written outside work hours (HRLaw, 2015). Though Smith won his case, it highlights that even with adequate privacy settings, you can never be certain whether or not your employer can see what you post.

Like individuals, companies want to protect their image and reputation. This often results in companies having to develop policies that attempt to control content and restrict employees’ use of social media (Myers, 2013). However, is it ethical to enforce these policies outside working hours? – There is a fine line between monitoring and controlling free speech.

References:

Henchoz, S. (2012) Social Networking: Freedom of Speech vs. Protection of Legitimate Business Interests, Accessed: March 2015.

HRLaw (2015) Status Update on Facebook: Smith v Trafford Housing and Other Tales We Like, Accessed: March 2015.

IBE (2011) The Ethical Challenges of Social Media, Accessed: March 2015.

Myers, C. (2013) Free Speech v. Social Media: Is Your Policy Legal, Accessed: March 2015.

Video1: Cracking Down on UK Social Media Free Speech – October 2012, Accessed: March 2015.

Video2: Courtney Love Wins Defamation Twitter Case – January 2014, Accessed: March 2015.

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13 thoughts on “Topic 4: Freedom of Speech vs. ‘Twibel’

  1. I found the last point you made very interesting. I don’t necessarily think it is fair for companies to have complete control over their employees use of social media and online activity, however it is important that they ‘monitor’ what is being said about the company and if it has the potential to be damaging to them. You mention about if this is ethical outside working hours…although this is a good point, from the view of a company I don’t think they would want comments made about them outside of working hours either.

    Maybe a way to keep an eye on social media activity is to start by monitoring employee activity and if they over step the mark by acting inappropriately, more serious measures should be implemented for that individual. This way it does not affect other employees who have been respectful to the company to date. What do you think?

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    • Thanks for your comments Francesca. Though the suggestion of monitoring employee social media activity is a good idea, I think that waiting for them to act inappropriately is not very efficient. This article (1) explains the features that need to be considered when developing a social media based policy within a company. It emphasises a clear separation between private and work lives. Employees should be made clear of what is deemed inappropriate and the actions that would be taken in response. Studies have shown that employees would alter what they post on their social media pages if they knew that their employer could see them. As a result, in line with a clear policy, the use of privacy settings should be emphasised in order to protect the interests of both the employee and the employer.

      (1) http://www.acas.org.uk/index.aspx?articleid=3381

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  2. Like Francesca I found your last point about Employers monitoring Employees Social Media use both during and outside office hours an interesting point, and a bit of an ethical dilemma. Whilst I definitely agree with freedom of speech, when you go home from work each evening you don’t stop working for your employer, you are still under contract and in many instances the ‘human & public’ face of that company, and I personally think with that comes a degree of responsibility to refrain from defamation in regards to the company.

    The link below takes you to an article which I thought showed an interesting alternative perspective on the use of Social Media by Employees. In this example Employees used Social Media to find other colleagues experiencing the same injustices and breaking of the law by their Employers. As the Walmart case shows, these Employees speaking out on Social Media can be a catalyst for change which really brings into question the ethics of restricting and monitoring Employees Social Media posts.

    http://www.jwj.org/now-trending-whistleblowers-in-low-wage-jobs-turn-to-social-media

    I personally think that unless your company is flagrantly flouting employment laws or engaging in ethically challenging behaviour then there probably isn’t a huge amount of need to be posting defamatory remarks about them on the internet, especially if they are just really your ‘pissed off ramblings’ rather than anything based on solid fact. It’s definitely a hard one to decide where the line should lie, companies don’t want to be wasting resources on libel claims, but Employees should have freedom of speech. What do you think?

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    • You make some interesting points Olivia. I agree that when you return home after work, you are still representing the company. With this, you are responsible for portraying the company in the best light possible. Employees should consider the possible repercussions that may follow as a result of posting negative opinions regarding the company on social media. They should be made aware that with freedom of speech comes a responsibility to protect the company’s reputation. Ideally, if employees are made aware of the repercussions of posting negative opinions on various social media platforms for both themselves (e.g. demotion) and the company (e.g. loss of customers), they may be less inclined to write such posts in the first place.

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  3. Hi Hayley,

    You raised some really engaging points about social media, businesses and employees – I hadn’t actually heard about the Courtney Love defamation case!

    I thought it was interesting that the presenters at the end of the video predicted seeing similar court cases arise in the future, and that tweets were treated, in the eyes of the law, in the same manner published work in a newspaper. Do you agree that tweets should be treated this way?

    On a side note, I thought your point, ’employee’s personal opinions in relation to the company they work for, expressed through platforms such as Facebook and Twitter tend to place companies in a difficult position’, really reminded me of when HMV had it’s Twitter ‘hacked’ by soon-to-be fired employees: http://www.theguardian.com/business/2013/jan/31/hmv-workers-twitter-feed-sacking

    As the link shows, I don’t know if companies can ever truly control their employee’s use of social media – even in their social media department! 🙂

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    • Thanks for the comment Sarah. This article (1) discusses whether or not defamatory tweets should be treated the same as printed defamation. Firstly, I believe that it is important to note that Twitter is markedly different to a Newspaper, in that readers can be easily identified (making retractions more efficient) and comments are restricted to 140 characters. However, there is an argument for treating both platforms the same – Twitter and some articles in the Newspaper, are both used to express opinions, as such they should both adhere to the same laws. Nonetheless, I believe that Twitter is still a far more causal platform and should be treated as such. In order to make this clear, the article mentioned above suggests some possible solutions: such as colouring tweets depending on their content.

      (1) https://verdict.justia.com/2011/10/03/should-the-law-treat-defamatory-tweets-the-same-way-it-treats-printed-defamation

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  4. Pingback: TOPIC 4 SUMMARY | FrancescaCharnley

  5. Pingback: Topic 4: Reflective Summary | Sarah Kyle

  6. Hi Hayley,

    I especially liked the way you ended your posting – by highlighting one of the ethical dilemmas here, i.e. ‘There is a fine line between monitoring and controlling free speech’. If I can, I’d like to pursue the theme a bit further:

    In my opinion it’s most unlikely that an employer would ever actually start to routinely monitor its employee’s social media postings – for the simple reason that this monitoring would require other employees being paid to scour the internet and watching what their fellow employees are doing. Can you imagine the job-advert; ‘the ideal candidate will like nosing into other people’s business and have strong IT skills’!

    The reality is that employers are reliant on being told when one of their employees has posted an inappropriate message. But in most situations, such messages would only be visible to their friendship group. So my question to you is this:

    Once you are in a full time job, if you were looking at a colleague’s Facebook or twitter entry and saw that it was slandering or criticising your joint employer – would you ever actually report them?

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    • This is a good question Tamara. Having only had a part-time job, it is hard to say what I would do; it would depend on the nature of the comment. I would also have to consider whether the comment was intentionally spiteful or humorous. Ideally, I’d like to think that I wouldn’t have to mention it to our employer, as it would have already been picked up on by the company. However, as a member of the business I would want to ensure that its reputation remained in tact. This is why I think that comments/tweets should be coloured depending on their content, perhaps this would make employees more aware of what they’re posting and who could see it. Ideally, people should be more diligent before posting.

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  7. Pingback: Topic 4: Reflection on Ethics | Tamara Manton

  8. Pingback: Topic 4: Reflective Summary | Olivia Handyside

  9. Pingback: Topic 4: Reflection | HayleyMatthews

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