Can Legal Systems Around the World Keep up with Social Media?

What happens on social media is important. In 2013 72% of US adults use social media sites which means there is more adults who use social media than there are people who vote! Social media can influence political discussions, boost ailing businesses and repair or ruin a reputation. The significant impact that social media plays in our day to day lives has not gone unnoticed by legal systems around the world.  Regulating the internet and social media is possibly one of the biggest challenges currently facing the modern democratic legal system.


The basic principles of freedom of speech rightly have remained unchanged, but the way we communicate has changed. We have nearly unlimited access to online content and more ways than ever before to express our view. It has become increasingly easier for people to break the law (intentionally or unintentionally) online.  Defamatory comments, copyright infringements and violations of court orders are sometimes only 140 characters away.


Can the internet be adequately policed? Should it be, or would that steer democratic countries down the dark road of censorship?


Fair Trial

There are more lawsuits relating to social media comments emerging each year as the law has started to clamp down on comments. Yes, in democracies we have freedom of speech but that doesn’t mean that an individual can literally say whatever they want to anyone. In previous times comments made around the water cooler stayed around the water cooler. Now we can broadcast our thoughts to thousands of people in an instant.


Let’s avoid complicated legal jargon and keep it simple: Opinions are one thing but stating something as fact (if it’s not) can get you into trouble. If you have a big following and don’t have a rudimentary understanding of defamation law you run the risk of getting SLAPPed with a lawsuit designed to shut you up. Just be careful how you word your posts.


Legal systems are not known for being dynamic, like a SUV on an icy road, they turn slowly. Yet there is need for change to protect the justice system itself as well as online users. In recent years there have been many instances, particularly in the UK and US of jurors being found in contempt of court for using social media. In London for example a juror posted on Facebook his glee at being able to convict an accused paedophile, while in Arkansas a death-row inmate was given a new trial after two jurors had tweeted  their thoughts and opinions about the case. Jury deliberations must always be confidential and can’t be opened up to external influence or it will damage the accused’s right to a fair trial. Clearly new methods to ensure the fairness of a trial need to be adopted. In some cases social media can be used to improve the process. Californian lawyers have actually screened jurors via their Facebook and Twitter pages to determine their neutrality.




Censorship and Freedom of Speech

Censorship is not wanted. Social media is a great medium for dispersing ideas and content across the world. I think a general misconception some have is that social media is private speech. Unless you have strict privacy settings it is not.


I don’t think the legal debate surrounding social media needs to be focused on Censorship vs Freedom of Speech. For century’s activists in countries across the world fought -and still fight in some countries- for the right to be able to express their views and for individual citizens to be heard. Social media gives anyone with the access to uncensored internet the chance to express their opinions to a large audience and interact with like-minded people.


The legal systems across the world will need to adapt to protect the fairness of trials and impartiality of jurors. Social networks have enabled us to all become publishers and with that comes the ability to spread positive and negative messages.  As for social media users, particularly professionals, a very basic knowledge of libel and copyright laws would certainly not hurt.


By: Sam Shedden