There is an inherent perception of social media that it is somehow a universal platform to express your feelings/personality/beliefs. The idea that people have the freedom to post and say whatever they want is wrong in some ways. Although social media does allow people the freedom to express themselves online, there is a point in which these freedoms impede on others. It depends on the same factors that give people freedom of speech under the First Amendment right. Luckily, there are exceptions that still give victims hope in justice if they are experiencing defamation, misinformation, sextortion, or harassment. 

Although freedom of speech is allowed in public forums, like streets and parks, speech may be restricted on social media platforms because most are private forum. Private forums are, as the name implies, owned by private companies which are allowed to establish regulations within their respective communities. Some examples of this would be: 

  • being asked to leave a store or venue due to your behavior
  • being removed from a book club, church, AA Meeting, or other community gathering
  • being banned from an online platform or game

This issue of Freedom of Speech really comes to a head when someone feels they are a victim of defamation, misinformation, sextortion, or harassment from someone else via social media. It is interesting that the courts do not treat social media for what it is, an online community and perpetual social gathering. Instead, there are benchmarks that must be met in order to prove to the court that you have been a victim of a crime.

The Supreme Court of California has held that social media websites and applications should be allowed to be admitted as evidence only if the posts are made public and accessible for everyone. It is up to the courts to decide which posts are made public. The courts will deem a post public if it has gained popularity and has been seen by a substantial amount of people. Once a post is seen as a public forum then it can be used in court as evidence. 

Exceptions to Protected Speech:

  1. Defamation 

Defamation is the intent to slander someone’s good reputation through oral or verbal communication. Libel is a written form of defamation. Although social media allows people the freedom to post about anything at any given time. Although it is a right to express your opinion, there is a fine line between that and defamation. Defamation on social media can be seen as false statements that injure a person’s reputation and have a negative effect on their life. In the court case, Dial v. Hammond, there was an intense Facebook exchange where Hammond had accused her previous business rival, Hammond of causing the death of her late son in a drunken accident. Dial was able to use screenshots from the Facebook exchange and prove defamation through the emotional distress it caused and earned a settlement of $500,000.

If a social media post can be proven to have public interest otherwise known as the interest shared by citizens on their wellbeing, then it may be claimed as defamation.

  1. Misinformation 

Misinformation is false or inaccurate information that is intended to deceive. Social media lacks the ability to fact check and regulate information before becoming widespread to its audience. 

If a news article or a media post provides false information intended to deceive a group of people, that is grounds for misinterpretation. An example of misinformation would be a Facebook post that falsely accuses your company of having a rat infestation. This could hurt your reputation and your company’s brand. 

  1. Extortion/Sextortion

Extortion and sextortion are other crimes that are committed through social media platforms. Common mediums for extortion and sextortion are Snapchat, Tinder, Bumble, Hinge, Instagram, and Facebook.

Extortion is the much more common of the two. Extortion is the act of obtaining something (money, favor, or other) through threats and intimidation. For example, a victim provided sensitive material to someone else because they were the victim of social engineering/manipulation. This material/information could then used against the victim for monetary gain 

Sextortion is a use of power  to coerce a person into unsolicited sexual activities online through explicit photos or messages. For example, if a boss sends a worker an unsolicited sexual message, then it can be seen as sextortion because it is an abuse of power to attain sexual favor. This crime is also often very prevalent with young people, and the person in power abuses their position to endanger a young person to threaten and coerce them into sexual favors. 

  1. Harassment

Harassment is the aggressive pressure or intimidation of a person based on race, religion, gender, or any other protected category. To show there is a trend of harassment, there must be constant instances of aggressive pressure or intimidation being directed towards you by another person or group of people. For example, harassment can be someone constantly attacking your reputation on social media and making you feel unsafe to the point that it drains your mental energy. If someone continues to harass you on social media through posts or messages, this may be cause for claims of harassment. 

While social media can be used for malicious purposes, it’s important to remember that this technology has completely revolutionized modern society. If you are a victim of any of the above crimes, don’t lose hope, contact law enforcement or a lawyer to determine possible courses of action.