With Twitter recently reaching the 100 million users mark, Elizabeth O’Malley investigates the potential pitfalls when social networking

Jordan Blackshaw and Perry Sutcliffe-Keenan have been sentenced to four years in prison for incitement to riot. What is so interesting about this case is that it is the longest sentence handed out in relation to the riots, and yet no actual damage occurred as a result of the posts the two young men put up online. In fact, to qualify for a four year sentence you would usually have to have kidnapped somebody, killed someone while drink driving, or be found guilty of sexual assault. So what makes writing something on Facebook so different from the other acts committed during the riots?


One group, one page on Facebook led to four years in prison. Now, more than ever, the message is to be careful what you say online or be prepared to accept the consequences. Of course the riots were an exceptional circumstance, hopefully not to be repeated. But is there a real cost for students who do not think before they post?

“Anything that you publish online to other people is regarded by the law as having been made public. So, publishing something to a group of friends on Facebook does not keep it private,” according UCD Professor Eoin Carolan, a media law expert. “Publication to one other person is enough to expose someone to the risk of a defamation action, so anything you say online could have legal consequences.”

Instant messaging or private groups, no matter what their labels might suggest, are all considered public information in the eyes of the law. Admitting to a crime online is not a wise move, even if you’re joking or just think it’s hilarious that you keyed your lecturer’s car. It’ll be incredibly difficult to deny you did anything if you’re incriminated by your own words.

Another area where a series of social media posts have come back to bite their author is the world of work. It now seems to be almost standard procedure for an employer to look up a potential employee’s Facebook page, and with the website’s ever-adjusting privacy settings you can’t be certain about what exactly they might see. One employer that this writer spoke to recently held interviews for her organisation and found “[it was] amazing how much of their personal info was available online, including comments about how they felt the interviews had gone.”

Once employed, students should still remain wary. A recent judgement in the US forced a non-profit corporation to rehire five staff fired for complaining about their job online. However, no such protection exists in Ireland so your online criticism can still lose you your job.

Probably the most infamous Facebook-related dismissal story is that of a sixteen year old who was fired from her job in Essex after posting that her boss was “a pervy w****r” and her job was “boring”, but not all work related mishaps need to be so evident. Companies are increasingly using networking sites to check up on staff members that have called in sick. According to a survey taken by employment consultancy firm Peninsula Ireland, 83 per cent of employers have monitored individual’s Facebook statuses to investigate whether an employee was truly ill.

Even if it might not get you fired or have legal repercussions it is also probably best not to put up that picture of yourself in a compromising position or post a mean comment on somebody’s wall. Professor Carolan points out that “there are significant difficulties involved in removing something that has been placed online in the future. Facebook, for example, has been criticised for claiming rights over anything uploaded to it and for making it very difficult for people to remove material completely.” Once something is online, it exists forever. This makes the rule of thumb quite simple: if there is anybody who you wouldn’t want to see it, don’t put it up.