Navigating the social media jungle

“I used to wonder what it would be like to read other people’s minds. Then I got a Facebook account and now I am over it.” This statement was a timeline post on someone’s Facebook account and it will certainly ring true in an uncomfortable way for many people.

Social media platforms have in recent years risen drastically and have been used for many varied reasons. Perhaps the most interesting yet confusing reason is for people to bare their souls and complain bitterly on these platforms.

The numerous ways in which people use social media platforms has presented challenges on how businesses respond. Until recently, media policies for companies were quite clear cut, easy to implement and well understood by staff.

Most policies stated only designated company spokespersons were allowed to the media on behalf of the company. But with the rise of social platforms, the media terrain has become very slippery. Millions of Zimbabweans with access to a smartphone and basic understanding of Facebook or twitter can post anything at any time which could be seen by millions in an instant.

So, where is the problem if an employee posts on how much he dislikes his boss to his 250 friends on Facebook? Or some racist, and sexist tweet in his private capacity?

In Zimbabwe, a few people have been arrested for social media posts that were said to be contravening the Criminal Law (Codification and Reform) Act i.e. “subverting a constitutional government”. The case of Vikas Mavhudzi, arrested in 2011 for his Facebook posts comes to mind. However, in Zimbabwe, like many other countries there is no legislation dealing explicitly with laws that govern the use of social media particularly at the workplace. This creates huge problems for the employer.

MISA Assistant Legal Officer, Farai Mhende, explained that in Zimbabwe there is no specific legislation governing social media. “The coming into effect of the new constitution will open up alternative avenues of prosecution of individuals since one of the limitations to the right to free expression speaks to the fact that one cannot publish statements likely to incite violence or cause hatred. So while there may be no specific legislation governing this new age of communication, there clearly are some pieces of legislation whose tentacles ultimately encroach into this realm. However, there have not been any prominent labour cases that have decisively dealt with this aspect,” said Mhende.

In many countries with a huge social media penetration such as South Africa, inappropriate social media posts can get an employee dismissed. Precedence has been set, where employees who have posted on their social pages on issues unrelated to work have been dismissed from their workplace because their posts have been deemed inappropriate.

Jan Du Toit from the South African Labour Guide says, “Another concern is the reputation of the business of the employer, or its employees, as a result of the information published on these sites. During the past couple of years we have seen a number of employees being dismissed as a result of defamatory information that was published on Facebook.”

Perhaps one of the most notable cases involving the relationship between social media posting by employees and their employers is the one involving PR Executive of an American organisation, Justine Sacco, who was fired from her job for posting “Going to Africa, hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

Although she could have sincerely meant this as a joke, this tweet went viral in hours and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet became a top trending topic on Twitter. She was immediately fired from her workplace for her ‘racist’ tweet.

South African eTV sports anchor Lance Witten was suspended over tweets relating to a concert tragedy where a woman died as a result of injuries sustained when a temporary scaffolding collapsed at the concert due to high winds. Lance tweeted: “Linkin Park is so badass, people are dying to see ’em.” He was suspended for ‘hurtful and inappropriate’ postings.

It will be interesting to watch developments in a country like ours, where there has been a tremendous rise in mobile penetration and resulting in mammoth increase in social media usage. It is reported that Zimbabwe’s mobile cellular penetration went up from 72 percent in 2011 to 97 percent in 2012 and to date, the country has over 1.4 million Internet users.

With such figures, social media usage by the employee, even in his private capacity will be watched intensely by the employer. The digital footprint brought about by social media, is instant, widespread, effective and it will become too big a reputational risk to ignore.

But in finding our feet in all this confusion, perhaps the best advice comes from popular Managing Director at Canadian-based digital agency who says “Don’t say anything online that you wouldn’t want plastered on a billboard with your face on it.”

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