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Common legal violations on social media

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Tips for avoiding legal issues on social media

Terms of Service for social sites:

Facebook terms of service

Twitter terms of service

Pinterest terms of service

Google+ terms of service

Almost all of us have done it at one time or another. Ignoring the privacy policy or user agreement when signing up for a website or a contest or trying to upload something to our phones.

But ignorance is not a defense. And ignoring the agreements can lead to legal problems.

I notice violations on social media all the time. Things in violation with contest rules or inappropriate posts or copyright violations. I can't help but wonder if it's going unnoticed, or whether companies and/or people ever get into trouble for it.

If I were a small business owner and noticed my competition running a social media contest that violated a lot of these rules or any of them, I couldn't help but wonder if I would complain to Facebook and ask the site to stop the contest. But it happens so often, sometimes I don't think anyone thinks twice about how to run contests or post appropriately.

Here are some of the violations of the terms of use on social media sites that I've noticed most often:

  • Companies are in violation if they offer to give away a prize or have a drawing for anyone who likes their Facebook pages.
  • Companies are in violation if they have a contest on Twitter without full rules. Full rules identify the material terms and conditions that govern the promotion.
  • Companies are in violation if they require the user to share a photo to win a prize or to be entered to win a prize.
  • Companies are in violation if they do not use a third-party application to run a contest on Facebook.
  • Companies are in violation if they require a comment on something in order to win a prize or be entered to win a prize.
  • Companies are in violation if they don't follow some of the aforementioned rules, and make money from Facebook without using Facebook-approved developers.
First Amendment Project/University of Florida photo Clay Calvert, director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida.

But legal issues don't stop at things companies are doing wrong. The companies also can be the victim.

Customers also are out there using social media, and sometimes, doing so illegally.

Clay Calvert, JD, Ph.D., is the director of the Marion B. Brechner First Amendment Project at the University of Florida.

One thing Mr. Calvert said is there is an increasing number of cases in which customers are claiming to have been "ripped off" or "cheated" by a company or making negative claims about a company's customer service or business practices. Then it turns out that customer never visited the store at all.

"Somebody can be defamed in 140 characters. And many people don't seem to realize that," Mr. Calvert said.

People using social media assume they have anonymity on the internet and think it's a free-for-all on which they can say whatever they feel without consequence, Mr. Calvert said.

Customers also can get so angry they make what is called "a true threat" of violence, Mr. Calvert said. Some courts define threats of true violence using a test that says: "If a reasonable person would foresee that an objective rational recipient of the statement would interpret its language to constitute a serious expression...[then] the message conveys a 'true threat.' "

And those are not protected by the First Amendment, he said.

Even with all that said, it's not wise to skip social media because there can be legal issues. Using social media is just like anything else in business. Be careful, use common sense, read an agreement before signing and think through a decision before making it.

Using social media is important and should be a part of any business strategy today. But that doesn't mean it's wise to abandon caution and see what sticks to the wall.

Know the issues and steer around them.

"In reality, very few people actually read the terms of service on social media websites before they use it," Mr. Culvert said. "They should. Or they should just understand the common sense principals of the laws of defamation apply equally there. And they can be held libel."

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