14:34 PM

Social media activities during isolation can have long-term consequences

By Dean Lyrissa Lidsky

Most of us are spending way too much time on social media these days. Self-isolation is making us seek connection, and the only safe connection is an electronic connection—or so it seems.  

But getting too comfortable online can be a mistake.  

An online rant may seem harmless, but your words can hurt others, and that hurt can rebound. Recently some social media users have asked for public shaming of their landlords and have posted personal information about their landlords, such as their home addresses. This practice is known as doxing, and in some instances, it results in the target receiving death threats and even suffering physical harm. But doxing could result in criminal liability for those posting the personal information, especially if they obtained the information through improper means. Indeed, a 27-year-old aide to a Democratic senator was recently sentenced to four years for hacking Senate computers and doxing senators to punish them for their role in the Justice Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. If empathy is not a sufficient motivator to avoid doxing, avoiding criminal liability should be. 

Another reason to avoid ranting about your boss, your landlord, your teacher, or anyone else on social media is that not only does it make you look unprofessional, but they may choose to sue you for defamation or bring other civil actions asking for compensation for the harms your words cause. Defamation online is called libel, and a statement libels another person when it is false and tends to bring them into disrepute within their communities. You may think your facts are correct when you post them, and you may think you’re entitled to make your target pay a reputational price, but can you prove the facts in court? And do you want the burden and expense of having to do so? Again, it pays (and pays and pays) to think before you post.  

Finally, most of us won’t be tempted to Zoombomb anyone, but for those who are, don’t assume it is harmless fun. Zoombombing occurs when uninvited participants join Zoom conferences for the purpose of disrupting them. In recent weeks, intruders have crashed Zoom conferences to subject participants to racist, pornographic, or violent images. The FBI is investigating instances of Zoombombing, and some of these digital trespasses are likely to be prosecuted under state and federal laws prohibiting threats, disrupting public meetings, cyberharassment, or gaining unauthorized access to computer systems.  

It is easy to feel insulated from the consequences of our online speech as we are stuck in our homes and looking for an outlet. But it pays to remember that our social media speech can harm others—and ourselves. 



Lyrissa Lidsky is Dean & Judge C.A. Leedy Professor of Law at the University of Missouri School of Law.