What you say on social media can be used against you
The Short Story
Even the president of the United States has to play by certain rules when using social media. What we put on Facebook and Twitter can be used against us and, in some cases, prevent us from seeking legitimate legal action. While it’s natural to be angry when one has been legally wrong, Facebook is the last place one should go to vent if one wants to maintain a legal case against the person who did you wrong.
I am not an attorney and nothing that follows is intended to be viewed as legal advice. If you feel you have been wronged or are a victim of fraud, you should consult your District Attorney or your personal lawyer.
The Background Info
Even though Facebook and other social media tools are over ten years old now, we’re still trying to figure out how to conduct ourselves without getting into trouble. There are things you can say, things you can’t say, things you can’t share, and pictures you can’t post. Keeping up with what you can and cannot do is rather difficult and at times runs quite contrary to what we want to do.
You’re not alone, though. Even the 45th president of the United States seems to be having difficulty figuring it all out. Last week, two Congressmen from the House Oversight Committee sent a letter to the White House counsel warning that the president could be violating the Presidential Records Act if he deletes a post from Twitter. The President frequently deletes tweets, especially when they have spelling errors. However, the Presidential Records Act requires that everything the president says or writes while in office must be preserved. This law was passed in 1978 largely as a result of the Nixon Watergate affair. Not many people knew about the predecessor to the Internet back then. This situation couldn’t have been foreseen and there’s no allowance for it.
There have been some other interesting ways in which a post on social media has come back to bite someone. For example, back in 2013, a Hawaii man was arrested after posting a video on Facebook that appeared to show him drinking a bottle of beer and then driving. While no one stopped him at the time, he was caught by surprise when police showed up at his door after he posted the video and arrested him for driving while drinking an alcoholic beverage and driving without a license. He shouldn’t have been surprised. Posts on social media have caught robbers, thieves and resulted in more than one arrest for rape on college campuses.
Rarely do we stop to think that the frustrated rant we make online can actually be used against us. Worse, we don’t realize how our words on Facebook can affect legal action in which we might be involved. When a federal Judge in Washington stayed the president’s initial travel ban he said statements by the president on social media factored into his decision against the White House.
Oops isn’t quite a big enough word to cover serious gaffes being made.
Where This Hits Home
Over the weekend, a 2016 story was re-circulated regarding a class action lawsuit against New York modeling agencies. The charges were that the agencies named “have systematically taken advantage of the models they claim to represent by unlawfully diverting millions of dollars in value from the models to themselves.” This suit is a re-submission of a suit first filed in 2012 that floundered because the plaintiffs didn’t pay sufficient attention to details and have their evidence prepared when it was needed. The second suit appears to be suffering from similar issues.
This isn’t the first time allegations have been made against modeling agencies. All kinds of serious allegations. in 2015, UK agencies Storm Model Management, Premier Model Management and Models 1 were charged with price fixing. Then, just this past September, IMG, Next and Elite were fined in Paris for the exact same thing.
Matters with models are serious business. Just the past season, fashion house Balenciaga came under severe criticism and eventually fired its casting directors amidst charges of racism and cruelty.
Against this background, Facebook pages began overflowing this weekend against yet another Midwestern modeling agency. The charges are familiar: Models not being paid on time, or at all. Underage models being exposed to inappropriately sexual situations. Models being sent to live in “flop houses” rather than hotels while on assignment. Models exposed to drug use and paraphernalia. Money charged to clients for models’ appearance diverted back into the agency rather than paying the models. Pretty serious stuff, and much of it legally challengeable.
However, any chance at legal action actually taking place and having the desired effect began to crumble by Sunday evening as the excess of related claims, from one aspiring model after another, piled onto Facebook, causing the situation to mount with claims of wrong-doing while failing to produce any actual evidence. This is a problem.
What we fail to realize is that when one posts information, especially accusations, on social media such as Facebook, it carries the exact same legal status as if it had been published by the local newspaper. Charges of libel apply if one deliberately makes a statement with the intention of doing harm to another person and/or their business. Even though we think that no one else sees what is posted on our “personal” accounts, the fact is that all social media posts are subject to subpoena and can be used as evidence.
Dangers here vary. One runs the risk of perjuring themselves if the testimony they give in court differs from accounts given on social media. Testimony can be thrown out if it differs from what was previously published on Facebook. Entire lawsuits can be found to be without merit of the judge determines the charges are nothing more than Facebook ranting. The agency may be able to claim damages for statements resulting in the loss of business.
We’ve seen this situation before. In 2007, a number of models brought a class-action suit against an Indianapolis-based model agency, claiming that they had not bee paid for services rendered. They won the civil suit. However, they saw very little of the money owed them. After making an initial payment through the court, the agency’s owner fled the state and has not returned.
What should be done instead? Again, I am not an attorney and this should not be construed as legal advice. The course of action that seems to stand a chance of being most effective, however, is to assemble and take to the District Attorney sufficient evidence as to warrant filing fraud charges against the agency and its owner(s) rather than filing a civil suit. Why?
We continue to see these situations with modeling agencies gone bad because there’s very little to stop them. There’s no oversight. There are no governing standards. If an agency gets caught doing wrong in one state, they pack up, change names, and start back up in another. However, fraud charges filed by the District Attorney brings with it the chance of actual jail time in addition to fines, and the possibility of a criminal record. If the alleged fraud took place across multiple states, there is the possibility for felony charges that could hinder a person from engaging in similar activities anywhere else.
What’s important, though, is that the accusations be presented in court, through the District Attorney, and not on Facebook. Putting such information on Facebook makes the charges all the more difficult to prosecute, especially if it is not hard, factual evidence assembled that back up the claims. District Attorneys need firm dates, places, and times. Receipts for anything resembling payment, and invoices or some other document that confirms how much was owed. Every accusation must be backed up with verifiable facts. Not a note from someone’s mother. Not a Facebook post swearing that it’s true. If there are not verifiable facts, there is no case.
Social media is a great place to talk with friends, share pictures and videos, and keep up with your community. It is not the place to discuss legal matters that have yet to be adjudicated in court. Bad modeling agencies are not stopped by a group of disgruntled models dropping out. If you feel you are the victim of a crime, consult the District Attorney for your county or your personal lawyer. Venting on Facebook might make one feel good for a few moments, but it does not stop people from doing bad things.
Not everything belongs on Facebook or Twitter. Intelligent people understand the value of restraint. Please, be intelligent.