People who post their opinion on Twitter or Facebook do not always expect serious consequences as a result. However, photographs, videos and messages posted on social media are increasingly grounds for dismissal, lawsuits or even prison sentences. Dutch lawyers report an increase in legal disputes following ill-advised use of social media.
There are plenty of examples to choose from, from all over the world. Particularly foolish was the decision of workers at a United States Domino’s Pizza restaurant to post a video on YouTube in which they could be seen sticking chunks of cheese up their nose before putting them on a pizza. A slice of salami was first used as toilet paper and then placed on the pizza. It was intended as a joke but their boss was not amused and they were sacked.
Dutchman Johan Minkjan paid a steep price for a gruelling cycling trip across the French Alps. He had to repay part of his disability benefits when someone spotted his messages on the Hyves website. A subsequent investigation showed he had already taken part in numerous cycling events.
Freedom of speech
Dutch labour law attorney Mariska Aantjes says the authorities are allowed to use these sources because they are in the public domain. “Unless the employee’s account is password protected, the employer has the right to read what the employee says. However, this does not negate freedom of speech.”
The last word has definitely not yet been spoken on the issue: “When a statement or opinion is damaging to the company, than that can be a factor. When your name is connected to the company and you damage either the company or your employer, that can be grounds for dismissal,” Ms Aantjes says. “And at the office water cooler you cannot say anything you want about your employer either.”
Internet lawyer Milica Antic feels the issue is slightly more complicated. She believes that insurance companies who research the Facebook pages of their clients violate privacy laws. “You are making something public to share it with your friends, not to allow insurers to take a peek.” The Dutch Data Protection Authority has ruled that information published on the internet is in the public domain, “but Facebook is not the same thing as a blog, where things are intentionally published. I just recently discovered that private information could be found via Google, while I was convinced I had taken adequate measures to protect my account.”
“When an insurance company or employer uses a false name to gain access to a protected Facebook account, then that is deception, plain and simple,” says Renzo Ter Haseborg, a lawyer who as early as 2010 issued a warning not to publish anything on social media that potentially could embarrass your employer.
"The distinction between private individual and public persona is becoming increasingly blurred,” Ter Haseborg says. “Of course you should never say something confidential when you are on a train either, but social media are like a magnifying glass.”
Dismissed after tweet
Tweets can also have major consequences. A Dutch police chief lost her job that way. After the discovery of two dead bodies in a house, she tweeted “In my district it’s probably a case of domestic violence.” It later turned out to be a case of carbon monoxide poisoning. She was first sent on administrative leave and later transferred.
In Brazil, a manager made the mistake of rooting for the wrong football club on Twitter. It turned out his company sponsored the other team and he was sacked.
Politicians and journalists are not immune to ill-advised tweets either. In the United States, Octavia Nasr lost her job with news channel CNN in December 2010 after tweeting she was sad about the death of Ayatollah Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah. She called the Hezbollah leader “a giant whom I respect.” CNN argued that Nasr’s credibility had been compromised by the tweet. She was sacked after 20 years in the job.
Facebook dispute leads to lawsuit
Name-calling on Facebook prompted a lawsuit in Suriname. The judge handed down an unusual ruling. The two adversaries were sentenced to apologise to each other on Facebook, on pain of paying a penalty for each day of non-compliance. “Everybody who read the hurtful words must be able to learn about the rectification. Were it to be disseminated in any other way than via Facebook, the intended target group would not be reached.”
And atheist Indonesian government worker Alexander Aan discovered that a court case is not the worst thing that could happen as the result of a tweet. He wrote “God does not exist” on his Facebook page and was subsequently beaten up by a furious crowd that dumped him on the doorstep of the local police station. He is now being held there for his own protection. He risks dismissal and five years in jail because atheism runs counter to the Indonesian constitution.
A Coptic student in Egypt landed in jail for allegedly insulting the Prophet Mohammed on his Facebook page. Angry Muslims attacked his home. The student denies posting the sacrilegious comment on Facebook, but he is in jail just the same.
There’s every chance we will see many more of these incidents in the coming years as the use of social media is growing rapidly. And yet, Ter Haseborg says the number of online ‘accidents’ in the Netherlands is relatively low. "I believe they happen mostly to users who are fairly new to social media. The generation now growing up with social media is much more aware of the pros and cons. All employers Google their prospective employees and people know that.”