Online 2011: Identity Issues with Social Media

This session had three speakers each talking about various legal issues relating to the use of social media. I’m just going to write about the first speaker, Marydee Ojala, who spoke about who owns your “handle” – i.e. the name you use on social media sites. The other two speakers, John Sheridan and Graham Coult, who spoke about legislation and provenance on the web and data protection respectively, both gave very detailed, informative presentations, but I think there was too much detail in both to really do justice to their presentations in a blog post.

Marydee started her talk by outlining the various different approaches to names used by different social media sites. Some, like Twitter, allow you to call yourself whatever you want. Others, like Facebook and Google+, require real names – although this is very difficult to police! There are numerous examples of people being banned from Google+ for using what looked like fake names but were, in fact, their real names; and conversely, people using fake names that look enough like real names that they’ve escaped detection by those policing the site.

Problems can arise when you are maintaining a profile on behalf of your employer or a group you represent, or when your online identity is closely linked to an employer/group. What happens if you leave the group/change employer? Who owns the name, and who owns your network? Marydee gave the example of a journalist, Laura Kuenssberg who’d had a twitter account called @bbclaura when she was employed by the BBC. She built up a substantial following on Twitter, which the BBC were more than happy about – until she left for a job with ITV, changed her Twitter name to @itvlaura, and thus effectively took all of her followers with her to a rival channel. Should the BBC have had some kind of policy in place to prevent her from using their branding on a personal profile, then taking all the followers she’d gained with her when she left? As Twitter is officially a personal service, and Laura was using it in a personal capacity, the BBC had no recourse to stop her doing this.

Marydee then listed some of the things that can go wrong when using social media:

  • Misinformation is common, whether intentional or not, e.g. panic started by false rumours on Twitter of a shooting in Oxford Street
  • Unverified accounts – these may be malicious or helpful, ranging from deliberate spoof accounts to fan pages – e.g. when fans of the brand found that Coca Cola did not have a Facebook page, they set up their own. Luckily for Coca Cola this is benign, but it is out of their control
  • Using name that sounds like someone else – e.g. a lawyer named Mark Zuckerberg was kicked off of Facebook because, having the same name as Facebook’s founder, it was assumed that his was a spoof account
  • Violating employer policies on posting – e.g. making disparaging remarks about your employer, giving away confidential information, or using sites for non-work purposes during work hours. These could all cost you your job!
  • Incorrect tagging, e.g. people on Facebook tagging you in photos that aren’t actually you – these can be accidental, done as a joke, or with malicious intent. Be vigilant – check what other people might be posting about you!
  • Intemporate remarks – e.g. the head of a UK housing trust boss who posted anti-gay marriage remarks on Facebook, lost his job over it even though his account was personal only, and not linked to the housing trust.

To lighten the mood, Marydee went on to list the ways to avoid some of the above problems:

  • Remember why you are using certain sites, stick to purpose. Don’t post stuff about your job on a personal-only site, and keep overly-personal information off professional sites.
  • If posting in personal context only, NEVER mention your employer by name
  • If you’re managing multiple professional and personal accounts on one site, always check which account you’re posting from before you hit enter! Think of it like double-checking you haven’t accidentally hit “reply all” when sending an email.
  • Be civil, accurate & kind
  • Recognize that social media encourages a sense of humour. Ask, is this a joke?

Tips for employees

  • Find out who owns your name/followers
  • Know & follow policies
  • Question the policy if you think it’s too stringent/likely to be ineffective.

Tips for employers

  • Accept that people will use social media, whether you know about it or not! Banning social media doesn’t work, people will find ways around it
  • Have a policy in place, and make sure it’s one that can be easily followed and that works for all parties.

Finally, Marydee emphasised that this is an evolving space – there will be problems caused as people negotiate their way around this unfamiliar territory. Social media encourages professional and personal identities to converge, so much depends on your own common sense.


2 comments on “Online 2011: Identity Issues with Social Media

  1. Brilliant post and very informative. I think because social media is so new there aren’t any hard and fast guidelines. What is said on the internet will stay around forever….I guess you have to be very very vigilant!! Great blog.

  2. […] employers and employees can be more prudent when operating social media accounts. Woodsie Girl has blogged recently about common social media pitfalls and tips for avoiding them. As she notes, it is indeed […]

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