Voula Papachristou: The dangers of expressing yourself in social media

Voula Papachristou lost her Olympic team spot over a tweet. Tell your kids: Careless use of social media can cost you.
Photo: Matt Dunham, file/ Associated Press

WASHINGTON, DC, July 30, 2012 — Social media allow young people to openly express themselves, share intimate thoughts and feelings, and even share funny, off-color jokes with the world. This week, a bad joke was so outraged Olympic officials that it got a member of the Greek Olympic team kicked off the team and out of the 2012 London Olympics.

Earlier this week, on her personal Twitter account, Greek triple jumper Voula Papachristou wrote, “With so many Africans in Greece, the West Nile mosquitoes will be getting home food!!!”

The real reason for her outster may have to do with the 23-year-old’s sympathies for the ultranationalist Golden Dawn party, which many perceive as neo-Nazi because of its anti-immigrant rhetoric and members’ use of a fascist-style salute.

The decision to boot Papachristou from the team may be an over-reaction, a knee jerk reaction froma country already sensitive over its national image in the EU.

Since the rise of Facebook, Twitter and other social media, people have grown accustomed to sharing their most intimate thoughts, photos and opinions with friends. They forget that they’re also sharing with the rest of the world. It did not take long for an extensive case history to develop in the US, the UK and across the globe of people losing their jobs, job offers, school admissions, child custody, marriage, and so on because they overshared in social media.

The Duke Law journal reports that as of November 2011, there were 647 lawsuits in which social media evidence came into play. Of those, 326 involved Myspace, 262 involved Facebook , 49 Twitter, and 37 LinkedIn. This is not just a U.S. issue. In Europe people have been jailed for making racist and harassing comments in social media. Sweet & Maxwell, legal information specialists, report that the number of defamation court cases in the UK in which the subject was allegedly defamed on blogs or on social media jumped from seven to 16 from May 2011 to May 2012.

Parents of teens using social media must make sure that their kids know that sharing in social media could have some negative consequences.

To give them a head start, here is list of 20 cases where someone lost some benefit like a job or a position in school on account of information shared in social media:

    January 2009: Joke death threats – A Minnesota court is currently trying to determine whether the University of Minnesota wrongfully disciplined Amanda Tatro for Facebook postings starting in 2009, including postings that referenced stabbing a certain someone in the throat and updating her “death list.”

    March 2009: Negative Tweet about an employer – Conor Riley had a job offer rescinded when she tweeted, “Cisco just offered me a job! Now I have to weigh the utility of a fatty paycheck against the daily commute to San Jose and hating the work.”

    March 2009: DefamationCourtney Love is defending herself in a defamation lawsuit over a series of tirades on Twitter, starting in March 2009, against fashion designer Dawn Simorangkir, who was demanding payment she said Love owed her for thousands of dollars worth of clothes.

    THR, Esq. notes that “[Love] announced that Simorangkir was a drug-pushing prostitute with a history of assault and battery who lost custody of her own child and capitalized on Love’s own fame before stealing from her. ‘She has received a VAST amount of money from me over 40,000 dollars and I do not make people famous and get raped TOO!’”

    October 2009: Facebook relationship status – When trying to determine if a woman and man were still married, and thus the likely parents of a child who another man claimed was his, the court considered the fact that the woman listed herself as “separated and divorced” on her Facebook status, on various occasions, thus showing that she was most likely not still with her husband as she had claimed.

    May 2011: Impersonating another person online – A judge ruled it was criminal to impersonate another person on Facebook. The defendant had made postings suggesting that the person he was impersonating was gay and a drug user. As the person being impersonated was a pastor, the chances of this causing him to lose his job were high.

    January 2011: Posting grotesque or private photos – An OB/GYN nursing student was expelled for posting a photo of herself with a human placenta on Facebook. She was permitted to return after showing that her teacher allowed her to take the photo in the first place.

    February 2011: Criticism of Boss – A court determined that an employer violated an employee’s First Amendment rights when he fired her for her Facebook status updates, including one that said, “So this week not going so good bad stuff all around.”

    February 2011: Tagging yourself in rowdy, drunk and half naked photos - Users do not have to grant permission before being tagged, a court declared in a custody case. A woman had been tagged in photos posted to social media which showed her drinking. Her husband used them against her to fight for custody of their daughter.

    February 2011: Fraud to get social benefits – To determine whether a litigant was lying about her illness in a claim for social security benefits, the judge in the case found Facebook images of the claimant smoking and threw out her case.

    May 2011: Juror making contact with defendant – Joanne Frail was jailed in the UK for making contact with the defendant in a multi–million–pound trial in which she was a juror. Frail, who was jailed for eight months, was the first person to be prosecuted for contempt of court involving the Internet in the UK.

    August 2011: Twitter Stalking – A NY court found that a man sending thousands of vulgar and threatening Twitter messages about a female Buddhist leader, including, “Do the world a favor and go kill yourself. P.S. Have a nice day,” was not in violation of cyber-stalking laws. The court found the tweets were constitutionally-protected speech addressing religious matters

    October 2011: Retain passwords after leaving a job – A fired employee had to return his social media username and passwords to a former boss.

    December 2011: Tweeting about drinking on the job – Aides for Rep. Rick Larsen were fired after tweeting about drinking on the job and and making derogatory comments about Larsen.

    December 2011: Absconding with a client’s fameAdorian Deck, a high school senior and creator of @OMGFacts, handed over his Twitter account, which had amassed some 300,000 followers, to social media mogul Emerson Spartz. Afterwards, Spartz created an associated MySpace account and grew the account to 1.9 million followers, then refused to give it back to Deck. Deck sued.

    January 2012: Callous comments following a tragic death – The day after a student drowned at the beach while on a field trip, a fifth grade teacher updated her Facebook status to say, “[a]fter today, I am thinking the beach sounds like a wonderful idea for my 5th graders! I HATE THEIR GUTS!

    They are the devils (sic) spawn!” She was fired, getting her job back after a court ruled a firing was too harsh a penalty.

    January 2012: Anonymous YouTube videos – A court declared that the Ron Paul for President Campaign did not have the right to know who posted an anonymous video saying mean things about then-opponent and fellow presidential candidate Jon Huntsman, because he didn’t meet the standards for discovery.

    February 2012: Family members posting hideous childhood photos on Facebook – A man sued his uncle for posting family photos and writing comments the man described as “mean,” but the court ruled it did not rise to the level of harassment and threw the case out.

    May 2012: “Liking” a boss’s political opponent – A Court ruled that Sheriff B. J. Roberts could fire employees for “liking” the Facebook page of his opponent. Employees were fired for supporting the incumbent sheriff’s opponent in his 2009 re-election bid. The fired employees sued, claiming the “like” was a protected political statement. The Judge said, however, that clicking a button doesn’t amount to actual statements and thus is not protected by the First Amendment.

    May 2012: Racist Tweets – A Welsh student was jailed for making racist and offensive comments on Twitter following the on-field collapse of soccer player Fabrice Muamba. Liam Stacy tweeted: “LOL, F&*^ Muamba. He’s dead.” Other Twitter users immediately criticized Stacey, prompting him to post further offensive and racist comments. He branded some people who censured him as “wogs” and told one to “go pick some cotton.” After serving 56 days in jail, Stacey, was expelled for a year from Swansea University, where he was a senior biology student.

    May 2012 A Maryland governmental department had to rescind its policy of requiring job applicants to provide Facebook and email passwords upon getting hired after one applicant raised a fuss, refused, and took his case to the media.

    There you have it. Sometimes it’s just best to keep your thoughts to yourself, or at least offline!


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Jeneba Ghatt
Jeneba Jalloh Ghatt is a former journalist turned lawyer turned citizen journalist. Currently, she manages her boutique communications law firm, where she has represented small businesses and nationally-recognized civil and consumer rights organizations before the United States Supreme Court, federal courts and the FCC. She also covers the White House and US Congress for the online news site Politic365.com while authoring her own influential blog JenebaSpeaks.com which is frequently accessed by top policy makers and think tanks, and the investment community. JenebaSpeaks.com focuses on the intersection of politics and technology and reports on policies and rules in the communications and tech sector.
 
Before opening her law firm, The Ghatt Law Group, which was the first communications firm owned by women and minorities, Jeneba regulated Comcast and Starpower as the Assistant General Counsel for the District of Columbia's Office of Cable Television and Telecommunications, and at one point was the only communications regulatory attorney in the entire city. She is founding member and policy chair for a new trade association, the National Association of Multicultural Digital Entrepreneurs and provides advice and counsel to new businesses in the tech industry, particularly small businesses owned by women and minorities.

Born in Sierra Leone, West Africa, but raised in the United States by her Catholic mom and Muslim dad, she started her college career creating web content for one of the earliest websites in history while working part time for the University of Maryland's Office of Technology. Following her graduation from the Catholic University of America, Columbus School of Law, she founded and co-wrote one of the earliest blogs and since then has gone on to found and author six different widely read and influential blogs. She was one of only 22 writers and bloggers to attend the first White House summit for African American media.
 
She holds a Certificate in Communications Law Studies from Catholic; a Juris Doctor from there as well, and a Master of Law in advocacy degree from the Georgetown University Law Center where she first taught and lectured as a Staff Attorney and Graduate fellow at that law school's Institute for Public Representation. She later went on to teach Media Law at the University of Maryland at College Park and guest lecture at Yale Law School and Penn State University, College of Telecommunications. She is well skilled and versed with social media and manages several Twitter, Facebook, Linked In accounts and groups.
 
She sits on the board of several non profits and trade associations.

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