There is a concerning trend of fake news circulating on social media with the aim of tarnishing certain businesses, which potentially have serious legal implications. While social media has become vital for small businesses and corporate companies to market themselves, there is a dark side – as they can suffer major reputational damage through the dissemination of unverified posts by disgruntled staff, clients, competitors or members of the public.
These posts are clearly intended to create misinformation and mistruths in the public sphere and often spread like wildfire. But according to legal expert, Ighsaan Higgins, even simple actions such as forwarding or liking these messages or posts, has legal consequences.
The need for education on social media comes as Kromboom Gardens Centre complex in Crawford is investigating who is behind a viral Whatsapp message claiming there was a cockroach and rat infestation at the premises – a claim which has since denied by management. The management of the centre described it as a “malicious social media attack”, the motive still unclear.
Higgins said there are several options of action available for business owners to take in cases such as these, which include criminal action, civil action and interdicts.
Accordingly, criminal charges can be brought against an individual after an assessment of the damages and civil action can be taken which could see individuals found guilty of charges brought, sued. Finally, interdicts are available to plaintiffs who would seek the removal of a particular post, and who wish to receive an apology.
“The circulation of these unconfirmed reports are becoming a huge problem, not just locally but internationally,” said Higgins.
“If something becomes a problem to society, the law intervenes, and courts look at how can one regulate this type of behaviour.”
Whether these reports are true or not, the fact remains that when these types of unverified, or even untrue claims are made, it still has repercussions for the business affected.
“It still places doubt in someone’s mind about shopping at that business or complex and this can lead to serious profit losses for such businesses or complexes,” he said.
Higgins stressed that business owners who “have lost money and can prove the claims laid against them are untrue”, can sue the culprit creating and distributing the content.
“They can be sued for a lot of money, as there is reputational damage”.
In law, when claims are made, they need to be proven. As such, Higgins goes on to say that “to post on social media – without the requisite evidence to create the content – he/she is putting him/herself in harm’s way,” and illustrates this with reference to several legal precedents, both domestically and internationally, where social media posts have resulted in serious legal cases.
In closing the discussion, Higgins advised that the best thing to do when seeing these types of posts is to ask if something has been verified and to ask if it’s true.
“Don’t like the post or comment LOL (Laugh Out Loud) or put anything there that will give the impression that you are supporting the particular piece of information without it being verified. If you are very curious then simply ask if it’s true. That way you won’t implicate yourself in that regard,” he explained.
“…People must understand – the rationale in social media is about building friendships, locally and globally, not (for social media) to be used as an opportunity to offend your fellow human being. It’s about affirming bonds of friendship and not for hate-speech and to be hateful.” VOC