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Fake news, trolls and social media: how to stay on the right side of the law

Sue McLean, Morrison & Foerster | March 21, 2017
Social media is becoming more of a minefield than ever before and getting it wrong can be costly.

Social media is now a standard tool used by businesses to interact with customers, raise brand awareness and monitor what is being said about them. Increasingly, employees are also being encouraged to use social media to promote themselves and their companies; to become brand ambassadors and advocates.

But with the steep rise in fake news and trolling, social media is becoming more of a minefield than ever before. And, as we have seen with the recent high profile case of Monroe v Hopkins, getting it wrong can be costly.

Although the publishing of false and misleading information is not a modern concept, people are increasingly consuming their news via social media and social media has made it far easier to publish false stories and for them to go viral quickly.

Technology has also made it simpler to create fake images, fake content and even fake websites. Understandably, concerns are being raised at the impact fake news is having on journalism and society.

The UK's House of Commons Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee launched an inquiry into fake news at the end of January 2017. The Committee is seeking submissions on a number of issues including the distinction between legitimate commentary and propaganda, the impact of fake news on the public's view of traditional media and to what extent search engine operators and social media platforms should be responsible for filtering out fake news.

Organisations such as the Web Foundation are also focusing on the issue. Last week, on the 28th anniversary of the creation of the world wide web, its inventor Tim Berners-Lee highlighted his concern over fake news.

In an open letter, Berners-Lee called on companies such as Facebook and Google to step up their efforts to tackle fake news and confirmed that the Web Foundation's five year strategy will include addressing fake news, among other issues.

Over in Germany, the government agrees that the networks are not moving quickly enough. In response to rising concerns over the potential impact of fake news and hate speech on the upcoming German election, this week the German government proposed a draft law that would impose fines of up to 50m on social network operators that fail to delete fake news (in particular, items that are potentially defamatory) or hate speech.

Given this increasingly challenging environment, what can you do to help ensure that you use social media safely and avoid any legal pitfalls?

Fact-checking

Before you tweet or post a story to social media, pause and do some basic fact-checking of your own. Red flags will include: the story hasn't been reported on traditional media, you haven't heard of the publication or individual posting the story, or the website, writer or content (image, video) doesn't look genuine. If in doubt, don't post.

Retweets can be endorsements

 

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