On the 9th February 2012 I was invited to a Facebook Marketing Seminar by a young and vibrant Managing Director of New Dawn Events and Exhibitions, Mr. Moagisi Zulu Gokatweng. The one day seminar featured Mr. Hugh McCabe: a Pretoria-based social media marketing consultant. In attendance were local entrepreneurs, a team from the Botswana Police Service, media personnel and persons from various government departments. One of the burning issues tackled was whether Facebook should be outlawed in Botswana. As Mr. Gokatweng explains it, the topic was motivated by the fact that, whereas Facebook has come across as a positive social networking platform that presents tremendous marketing and public relations opportunities for organizations, it has been viewed from other quarters as a security risk. It is this security argument that has led to some countries not allowing it within their shores.
In Botswana, Facebook is synonymous with youth culture, a phenomenon which makes many adults feel somewhat awkward about opening a Facebook account. Many who have opened such accounts leave them dormant. Even amongst the youthful, sometimes Facebook is associated with the rebellious characters that are unashamed of posting pictures of themselves exposing naked behinds accompanied by racy prose.
The past week there have been heated debates around one BDP member who has been suspended from his party because of his posts on Facebook. I cannot comment on the details of the case of this unfortunate soul; whether his accusers are right or not. However I will deal with the general principle around the matter. People who attain membership of parties or who are employed by certain organizations or companies are bound by laws and rules of such organizations. The Human Resources departments of these organizations usually have clear processes and procedures of how to proceed in the event that one is disgruntled or aggrieved. Such an offended individual may send an email to a colleague detailing his frustrations with the organization and perhaps asking for assistance. They may meet their lawyer or friend and talk freely about their frustrations. Such private discussion will not be considered injurious to the organization. However, once such an individual publishes a letter in the media, addresses a gathering or posts something on a website, a blog, their Facebook page or the Facebook page of their organization or of any other organization, their views are public and may be checked against the guidelines of their organization. Not only that, someone may approach the police if such views are considered offensive, since they are no longer just matters of individual thought; but they now lay bare in the public domain for public consumption and scrutiny. Such postings have the potential to tarnish the image of an individual or an organization. If someone had posted a complaint against the leadership of the company or organization; the leadership of the organization can check if organizational procedures have not been breached. If breached, disciplinary proceedings may be brought against such an individual. The question is: in the event that such an action is taken against one who posts such material, is their freedom of expression curtailed or violated? Now that’s the playground for lawyers. The fact remains that freedom of expression is not absolute, but it is subjected to limitations such as slander, libel, obscenity, incitement and copyright. Many Facebook posts are libel. They make statements that masquerade as fact and have the potential to tarnish the image of companies, parties or individuals. Some posts incite violence or hatred. That certainly cannot be right. And yet some argue: “Freedom first; limits last”. Some say we live in an ‘information era where everyone should express their views on any matter’. I agree. And the question still remains: “On what platform? And following which guidelines?” Certainly you cannot say whatever, wherever and to whoever. A man cannot interject the president’s speech and say whatever he wants and in defense say: “I was exercising my freedom of speech”.
Facebook is certainly a recent platform, and all over the world organizations and companies are beginning to come to terms with its liberties and restrictions. Individuals realize that they cannot post anything that they want about anybody on Facebook. Recently a Belfast company sacked an employee for gross misconduct after he posted offensive comments about a co-worker on Facebook. The tribunal found that the Facebook posts amounted to sexual harassment, and were contrary to the employer’s disciplinary and code of conduct policies. The tribunal rejected the defendant’s argument that his rights under the Human Rights Act of 1998 had been interfered with because he should not have been dismissed for making “private” comments to his circle of friends on Facebook. The tribunal said “when [the complainant] put his comments on his Facebook pages, to which members of the public could have access, he abandoned any right to consider his comments as being private”.
Philip Landau, an employment lawyer at Landau Zeffertt Weir Solicitors, has a stern warning to employees: “Workers be warned: taking to your Facebook page or another social networking site to make derogatory comments about a colleague is not a wise move. Comments that would be construed as bullying in the office are not out of bounds to employers if you make them in public on a social network”
There are very few things which have suffered much abuse as Facebook. While there are fruitful debates and very interesting material shared on Facebook; some are in the habit of posting highly offensive material; this includes images and inflammatory content. The Belfast tribunal has ruled that when you post comments on a Facebook page, which members of the public can access, such comments are no longer private; they are public statements. Facebook cannot be a law unto itself. It is a powerful tool which can be used for personal enjoyment, intellectual discussions and debates. It can also be used to damage the integrity of individuals and organizations. A knife can be used in the making of a healthy salad; and yet it can take a life. Those who abuse Facebook must not cry foul when the aggrieved persons lay a complaint. Our demand for more freedoms must be accompanied by a demonstration of our ability to handle such freedoms responsibly.