Over the years social media has evolved from just a mere way to catch-up with friends and family to a platform for topics of debate, where users are becoming more opinionated about issues and feel the need to express their opinions on social media. However, some posts tend to bring about controversy, sparking anger and abuse which can get out of control.

Some users faced disciplinary actions while others were dismissed from their jobs after posting certain content on social media. Durban North News sought information from a social media expert, Verlie Oosthuizen, to shed some light on social media do’s and don’ts, and what you need to know:

What are we allowed to post on social media ?
There is no doubt that we live in a culturally diverse society and that there are many sensitivities that exist which can become heated in online discussions. Social media is a difficult space when these kinds of discussions are taking place as it is tricky to convey opinions taking everybody’s views into account. There is also no way of really knowing whether someone is being serious or joking, as nuance is lost. Also people do not understand that you cannot simply say whatever you want to say on social media with no consequences. All of the laws of South Africa apply to online speech and freedom of expression is not unlimited.

What are you allowed to post on social media?
You can post contents that does not violate the terms and conditions of the social media website concerned (they usually have rules about hate speech and propaganda for war or to incite harm). You cannot post anything that will be a violation of an employer’s code of conduct or social media policy and you cannot post content that will bring your employer, school, college or university into disrepute. Anything that could be regarded as objectively offensive to another person is probably not a good idea. If you defame somebody online and lower their reputation in the eyes of others you put yourself at risk of defamation claims.

What are the implications of posting racial/degrading or inflammatory comments?
Discriminatory speech such as racist speech or sexist speech, etc, does place the social media user at risk for legal action in terms of the Equality Act. A person could also complain to the Human Rights commission about your utterances. Most employers will dismiss an employee if they discover that these types of posts have been placed online and there are plenty of cases on the issue. It is a very bad idea to place these types of comments online.

Can social media be used to condemn political party/persons/groups?
There is slightly more freedom to express opinions about political parties or figures on social media as long as the commentary does not amount to hate speech or incitement to violence. You can express disagreement with their views, however it needs to be expressed in a reasonable manner. It is unlikely that the political party will take action against you (unless the content is extreme and has gone viral), however your employer/ school/ college/ church may have a different view.

What legal actions can be taken when such posts have gone viral?
This will depend very much on the facts of the case, the type of post and the organisations that want to take action against the person who created the content. There could be Equality Court action, a workplace dismissal, a school expulsion, a crimen injuria charge by the police, South African Human Rights Commission involvement, or a defamation claim. There are so many options. The public needs to realise that social media can have far-reaching consequences that they never could anticipate and controversial commentary can get you into a lot of trouble.