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You Could Go to Jail for Your Facebook Update

08 February, 2013
ICT Africa Writer
February 08, 2013

I started posting contributions and reading posts on different Internet forums about a year after the Internet went public in 1989. On most of the forums or online communities that I got involved with, there were guidelines that one had to review before making contributions – they called them “NETIQUETTE”. One of my favourite rule read, “Adhere to the same standards of behaviour online that you follow in real life”. My interpretation of this guideline is that before one writes anything online, they should be prepared to defend whatever they write if they were questioned in real life – face to face.

Today’s social networks, including Facebook, do not usually insist on any form of decorum that one should abide by before posting. On the periphery, the absence of regulations and rules on social media sounds very attractive for those who have the dire need to express themselves without too much restriction. I am cognizant of the need for some people to use social media as a viable option to freely express their thoughts when there are no other avenues to do so. The problem is that it is not just you and your “friends” on Facebook who read your updates - it could be the despotic president’s men from your country, the employer, the abusive spouse, a not so friendly Facebook “friend” or anybody else who can masquerade as your friend on Facebook.

If you thought anonymity is the answer to posting anything on Facebook without any consequence, please think again. Facebook has been forced by courts to reveal true identities of cyber bullies. Randi Zuckerberg, Facebook’s marketing director and sister of Facebook founder, Mark Zuckerberg, has even called for the end to anonymity to prevent cyber bullying. So while social media can be a useful tool for those devoid of free speech, you can’t delude yourself into thinking that you can post anything without consequence. The following cases underscore the fact:

1. A Johannesburg, South Africa, man won a landmark court case against an ex-girl-friend who made “slanderous” remarks about him on her Facebook wall. The friend was ordered by the courts not to ever make any more remarks about the ex-boyfriend on Facebook or risk facing a jail term.

2. In order to prevent the political turmoil that happened in Kenya during the last general election, Kenya setup a system to track any warning signs of violence by monitoring posts on twitter and Facebook. Anybody caught inciting violence on the social media would meet the full wrath of the law.

3. A South African man who invited his Facebook friends to a celebration party to mark the deaths of 42 white children in a Dam disaster almost 28 years ago had to apologise publicly after his Facebook Post was identified by the authorities.

4. A Zimbabwean man was charged, dragged before the courts and imprisoned for remarks he made about President Robert Mugabe, the Octogenarian (or is it Nonagenarian?) Zimbabwean leader on his Facebook page. His Facebook page read, “I am overwhelmed. What happened in Egypt is sending shockwaves to dictators around the world. No weapon but unity of purpose worth emulating, hey.” In my humble opinion nobody should ever go to jail for making such an innocent remark on Facebook, but there it is, at the time of writing this guy was still in prison.

5. Not long after receiving a disability allowance a from a USA employer, an employee posted images of her dancing moves from a dance party on Facebook. Based on the Facebook post, the employer demanded the employment disability allowance paid to the employee.

To cut a long story short, you have to take some time to consider the possible consequences of what you post on Facebook – even if you are posting anonymously.


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