Social Media and Unintended Consequences

Table of Contents
Oklahoma Bar Association, since 1904

Social Media and Unintended Consequences

Social Media and Unintended Consequences Social media tools, such as Facebook, Twitter, Snapchat, Yik Yak, Vine, or Pinterest, are now a larger part of our lives than ever before. Personal expression, sharing information, and conversations can now all be done almost effortlessly via computer, tablet, or phone. The speed of these communications tools, combined with the feeling of relative anonymity and the ability to spread information to huge audiences, opens new legal issues and new opportunities to hurt others and create criminal or civil liability for yourself or other people.

Before texting, posting, tweeting, or sharing, here are some things to keep in mind:

  1. Making a threat of violence against a person or thing is just as much a criminal act when done online as if done in person. It can land you in jail. Likewise, threats of violence may also be used by a school as a basis to suspend, expel, or otherwise punish a student if the threats relate to the school, other students or school employees.

  2. Social media posts intended as a joke may not be taken that way by others. In recent years, Oklahoma students have been suspended or expelled from school, prosecuted in criminal courts, and in more severe cases, put in jail for posts about violent acts like shooting or bombing a school, even when the posts were not intended to be serious.

  3. "Sexting" can be both illegal and very dangerous. Explicit images or text sent via social media or smart phones are nearly always traceable and almost never anonymous, even if a sender intends them to be. They can be easily copied, recorded, or shared for purposes of bullying, stalking, or blackmailing those participating or depicted in explicit posts. If any person in a sexually explicit image or video is under 18, anyone caught sending, receiving, or merely in possession of a copy, can be prosecuted under Oklahoma's child pornography laws. Violations carry a penalty of up to 20 years in prison followed by mandatory registration as a sex offender.

  4. Oklahoma also has the Oklahoma Computer Crimes Act, which makes it a criminal offense to use any computer system or network to annoy, abuse, threaten, or harass another person.

  5. Even when posts do not cause legal problems, they can cause other costly issues. For instance, employers routinely perform searches on the internet as part of their background checks when hiring potential employees. A person who has a perfect record in every other aspect of life and school may be denied opportunities because of careless, hateful, indecent, or immature use of social media. It is difficult to "cure" this ill later, since even deleting posts does not remove all record of them.

A simple rule of thumb can help you avoid unintended legal consequences for posting anything in social media. If you would expect to get in trouble for saying it in person, it is a good bet you will get in trouble for saying it online. And unlike something said in person, there will almost always be a record documenting that you said it. Even with services like Yik Yak, which does not require accounts and advertises anonymity, law enforcement can trace the source of posts. No matter how you post something, it is never truly or totally anonymous and will leave some kind of record even if you delete it.

This record can have lasting consequences, because things you post or share on social media may also be used against you (or others) in court. For instance, if you share a story or post a photo of yourself or someone you know using illegal drugs, drinking while underage, or engaging in criminal activity of any kind, it sometimes can be used as evidence to convict that person in a criminal court. It is now commonplace for Oklahoma law enforcement and probation officers to check social media for evidence of a suspected crime or violation of probation or parole. Things depicted in YouTube videos have resulted in jail and prison sentences for offenders in Oklahoma courts, and this use of social media evidence is becoming more common every day.

There are limits to legal liability for online communication just like in the physical world. Social media posts are a form of free speech protected by the First Amendment. This means that while you can get in trouble for things like threats, harassment, or malicious lies (because these are NOT protected by the First Amendment), you have the right to express a view or position that is unpopular, disagrees with others, or criticizes someone in a position of power or authority. If you are ever threatened with punishment or criminal prosecution for exercising free speech online, contact an attorney or civil liberties organization for help.

If you yourself have been the victim of abuse, threats, or harassment using social media, there are legal options that can help you if you have been harmed or now feel unsafe because of these. Contact your local police or sheriff's department or school administrator for help.