Some months ago, I got a phone call from a married Facebook friend (She is more than a friend in real life). She was worried about a video–the content of which was akin to porn–that had been posted on her Facebook wall without her consent or knowledge. Though she didn’t know the actors in the video, she was embarrassed by it. She needed information on know to delete the offending video from her timeline. (Interestingly, Facebook buttons that keep Mark Zuckerberg’s invention in business, such as ‘like’ and ‘add friends’, are readily visible and accessible to users while the features that help keep users safe and out of trouble aren’t. Except one is tech savvy, they would need help locating the ‘unfriend’, ‘delete’, ‘block’ or ‘untag’ buttons on Facebook). With the help of Google, I found the relevant information and instructed my friend on how to take down the post, much to her relief. Later, I wondered how it would cause scandal if, given their pervasive presence on social media and how equally vulnerable they are as a result, renowned Christian pastors become victims of such hack.
Around the same time my friend got her account hacked, a newly married man in his thirties, decided, against what should be his better judgment, to put up pictures of a beautiful 19-year-old girl I knew and claimed the 19-year-old was his ‘ex’. The young girl was related to me and since I considered the post defamatory against her, though I barely know the young man, I called him out on his actions through comments to the post thereby clearing the girl’s name. I was furious as I had previously warned him, through a courteous private Facebook message, against misappropriating the girl’s name and image. I also wondered if the gentleman realized the implication of his post, including conclusions that could send him in jail for abuse of a minor.
Besides one’s online presence making one susceptible to an attack on one’s reputation by others, posts people send out themselves could make them liable in damages and could be used as evidence against them in courts. Given that the Internet is relatively new, some users are not yet well aware of what consequences some of their posts today may have on them in future. If you consider that Ben Carson’s Gifted Hands is only now coming under great scrutiny more than twenty years after the book was published, then before you hit every post or send button on your Facebook page, you will ponder first in what way it might impact you in twenty years’ time when you could say, be running for a political office.
Social media content is increasingly being admitted in courts as proof to establish facts. As of 2012, there were about 700 cases in the U.S. pending on appeal over the admission of social media evidence. Mind you, this was only at the appellate, not trial, courts. Similarly, I read that Facebook plays a role in one-third of divorce cases. A 2012 survey of divorce attorneys found that 80% of them say they look for evidence on social media. For example, a picture of a man behind the wheels of a brand new Mercedes may determine how much more the wife’s attorney insists he pays for alimony and child support. Evidence on Facebook of illegal activities such as drug use may result in denial of child custody. In one case, a wife claimed car accident injuries (and resultant surgery) had left her unable to work, thereby justifying monthly alimony payments. Her spouse countered with evidence from her Facebook and MySpace accounts detailing her active belly dancing exploits four years after the surgery, which the judge accepted and ultimately used to deny the wife the lifetime monthly support checks she sought from her ex-husband.
Social Media posts are also used as evidence in workers compensation and personal injury cases to counter any claim of physical harm and the extent of damage Plaintiff suffered. “Photographs and comments suggesting Plaintiff may have recently ridden a mule,” posted on Facebook was used by the defense, in one case, to argue against the plaintiff’s claims that a car accident had left him physically and psychologically injured. In one worker’s compensation case, a forklift driver at a warehouse in the US said that he hurt his leg at work and claimed damages for lost wages. His employers told the Court they believed his Facebook and MySpace pages indicated that his leg was not as damaged as he claimed, and asked the court to give it his passwords for those pages so they could check.
Incriminating evidence from social media is also used by prosecutors to nail accused persons. Rap music posted on Facebook by a suspect was used in one criminal case as evidence of rape, harassment and threat of deadly harm. Recently, a Twitter user who killed someone while driving posted the body of his victim on twitter just moments after the accident. Undoubtedly, a jury will be more likely to mete out a harsher sentence if defense counsel does not succeed in excluding the admission of the video in evidence through a motion in limine.
Deleting Facebook posts after-the-fact to prevent the negative effects of incriminating posts is not an option. By intentionally deleting relevant information especially in the face of an impending litigation, one would have potentially engaged in the destruction of important evidence and could subject themselves to even more trouble if the Court discovers the actions. In at least one instance, a Court fined both a party and his attorney for “cleaning up” a Facebook page to remove harmful posts and pictures
Coincidentally, while I was writing this, I read this post on BellaNaija about a woman seeking to use pictures posted on BN of her husband’s pre-wedding photos with another woman as evidence in court. Those pre-wedding photos no doubt are solid evidence for a divorce case and possible bigamy charge against the man if the facts alleged are true.
To be sure, social media has its advantages. However, only a responsible use will guarantee one doesn’t get sent to jail over a seeming innocuous post. Once you put something on the World Wide Web, it’s there forever. Even if you delete it seconds after posting it, someone might have taken a snapshot of it, and it may still haunt you in the future. And then, there is the power of subpoena that can be issued against Facebook.
In conclusion, you need to be careful about what you put on the Internet because you never know how it is going to be used against you in future.