Organizations and individuals are frequently re-learning that posting something on social media ensures the near-permanent existence of that material. A tweet that is posted six months ago can be easily found by an intrepid researcher. A picture that is posted to Facebook never really goes away. These reasons underscore why we need to be especially careful about our social media use.
We’ve written about defamation before - and it is worth remembering that even if something posted online was deleted, the length of time that it was posted is still a factor when determining publication and damage to a person’s reputation.
Professional golfer Phil Mickelson recently decided to go after an anonymous commenter on a Yahoo sports story who, among other character attacks, alleged that Mickelson fathered an illegitimate child. Mickelson first asked Yahoo for the ISP of the commenter (who was Quebec-based), then went to court in Quebec to force the ISP to disclose the identity of the commenter, and the Court recently agreed that Mickelson was entitled to know the commenter's identity. Presumably, Mickelson intends to sue for defamation.
But defamatory comments are not restricted to professional sports athletes. In 2008, a well-known Canadian NSO leader was labeled “incompetent” and “inept" in an extended diatribe posted on a sport-specific forum by a slighted former athlete. This leader has since moved on from that position – but the posts remain. Anyone searching for the leader's name may come across this forum and see these posts.
Similarly, the Canadian Soccer Association and the Alberta Soccer Association are the subjects of a nasty attack website, which alleges a number of conduct issues within those organizations.
We’ve written about organizations’ problems with disgruntled members, and these types of isolated postings are almost certainly the work of members who have perceived (rather than actual) grievances. But a random reader who stumbles upon these websites does not know the context. To the new visitor, these sites and posts could represent legitimate and widespread opinions.
Organizations and individuals can be affected by postings in different ways. The two previous examples of Phil Mickelson and the NSO leader describe defamation – but member conduct is also an issue.
A former player from a CJHL hockey team posted a story on his blog where he (after identifying himself and his former team) describes himself: hazing rookie team members in the locker room, forcing rookie players to drink and perform degrading activities, driving drunk, and ripping the pants off a girl and then having sexual intercourse with her while she screamed in pain.
A young minor volleyball athlete posted a photo on Twitter of herself bringing many bottles of alcohol into the team lockerroom; intended for team-wide consumption after a practice. Her Twitter feed also included tweets where she insulted opponents, swore frequently, and allegedly threatened opposing team members’ parents.
What can an organization or an individual do?
In instances where the posted conduct is illegal (as in the case of the hockey player and, possibly, in the case of the defamation) the organization should review the Criminal Code and consider taking a complaint directly to the police.
But in instances where member conduct is an issue, an organization or individual should take as many proactive steps as possible. Education about the permanency and non-privacy of social media is the very first step, especially with younger athletes. Members must be aware that their postings on social media are public and subject to the organization’s Code of Conduct and Discipline policy (two policies that every organization should have and enforce).
In our view, an organization’s Code of Conduct and Discipline policy should address conduct that occurs outside of “sanctioned” activities. We recently noticed an incident where an organization basically ignored the conduct of its players (who were alleged to have committed rape) and claimed the party at which the incident occurred was “non-sanctioned”. Actually, any conduct by a member, at any time, reflects on the organization – so it is sensible for the organization to always monitor its representatives’ conduct. A recent notable example of an athlete violating a Code of Conduct is the case of the Water Polo Canada athlete who was suspended by the organization and denied funding for two years because of his participation in the 2010 Stanley Cup riots in Vancouver. Strong conduct deterrents can help manage negative behaviour – in both sanctioned and non-sanctioned activities – and in social media communication.
Individuals have a tougher time of managing their online identities and reputations, but can also take proactive steps. Regularly google yourself. Not simply by googling your name, but by googling your name in connection with your sport, alongside the names of other members, and in connection with previous controversial incidents in which you may have been involved. If you find evidence of possible defamation, you can contact forum moderators, alert ISPs, or even hire private companies that specialize in cleansing online identities.
The Canadian NSO leader who was allegedly defamed in a forum should be aware of the posts (and was), should be prepared to refute any of the allegations if they happen to come up a job interview, and may consider proactively disclosing possible defamation that may exist somewhere online. Further, even after four years, it may still be possible (though perhaps unlikely) to get the posts deleted or make them harder to access.
Ultimately, despite the permanent nature of social media, taking a proactive approach can help manage individuals’ and organizations’ online identities. Even after time has passed, steps can be taken to minimize the damage of negative social media postings.
If you ever need access to the material or advice posted on our website… remember that the material posted here will always, always be accessible.