I truly fear the day, probably some time in the very near future, when the phrase, “If it’s on Facebook, it must be true…” is used in open court as factual evidence. Not because I especially distrust this particular social networking platform, but because it would imply that social media has become a document of record. This would mean that content from Facebook and other social networks could be cited in court as evidence of information being true, of an event having occurred, or of a person (or object) actually existing.
Many commentators have explored this question of social media and “did it really happen” either in the context of existentialism (“I Instragram therefore I am”), or in respect to social media etiquette (“just because you can, doesn’t mean you should”). I am more concerned with what happens when we start to place inappropriate reliance upon content and information published via social media?
It took a number of years for faxes and e-signatures to be accepted in court as evidence of a document having been executed or a legally binding agreement having been created. E-mail is now admissible as evidence that a formal notice has been served between parties to a contract.
In some situations, e-mails and text messages are cited in court proceedings as evidence of a person’s promises, denials, deeds, opinions, state of mind or intent. “Smoking gun e-mails” are not uncommon in major court cases, and many organizations are required to archive e-mails and instant messaging for the very purpose of maintaining a “paper trail” in the event of future legal proceedings.
But I think we are far from ready to recognize social media as an official document of record, even though many users treat these platforms as a primary source of news and information.
Recently I was speaking to a Gen Y acquaintance who admitted that she got much of her daily news via a group of Facebook friends, who each post stories or news items as they hear or read about them on Facebook and the media. Given the immediacy of such “news bulletins”, the fact that this might be second-hand news does not seem to matter – “peer recommended” or “peer referred” information is often deemed to be just as reliable as the official or primary source, even if the content is selected on the basis of the number of “Likes” or how prominent it appears in search engine results.
Of course, Facebook, Twitter, Google, Yahoo and their users are vulnerable to legal action if they propagate libelous or other offensive content; and as we know, this material can be used as evidence in criminal and other legal proceedings relating to cyber-bullying and hate speech, etc. That, I have no issue with.
Equally, I have no problem if social networks are used to announce births, deaths and marriages, or if companies want to communicate with their customers and suppliers via social media. If a customer seeks to rely upon the terms of an offer placed in a retailer’s Facebook page, that is no different to relying on a newspaper or broadcast advertisement. But let’s not equate publication on social media with our obligations to register or file certain events and official notices with the relevant authorities.
Social media allows each of us to be anonymous or hide behind assumed identities, and to publish what we want within the limits of free speech and other legally defined parameters.
But there is nothing to say that any of the stuff that we publish about ourselves has to be true or accurate, and I would be aghast if that was ever made a pre-condition for using social media. Social media is a wonderful platform for expressing opinions and exploring different aspects of our lives and our personalities, and it is precisely for this reason that social media is incapable of being regarded as a document of record.