As long as people have run afoul of the law, people have talked about it. It’s juicier gossip than the weather, and if it happens close to home, well that makes it even more exciting — if not a bit more frightening. Naturally, as more and more people use social media to communicate, talk of local crimes has gravitated to Facebook groups, Twitter feeds and neighborhood-specific apps such as Nextdoor.
Social media groups created to spot potential crimes and the perpetrators committing them have popped up in communities across the country and Council Bluffs is no exception. Oftentimes, social media users post pictures of stolen items so the community can keep a lookout. If a shady character is peeking into open garages and checking for unlocked car door handles, neighbors can be made aware instantly. They can often be helpful. The majority of people comprising the online communities are typically well-intentioned.
But when does the content posted on sites dedicated to crime spotting cross the line? Is the person riding a bicycle and wearing a backpack an opportunistic thief, or is it just someone on the way to their job carrying a set of work clothes to change into? Is the unknown person sitting in the neighbor’s driveway a burglar casing the place? Or is it just someone waiting to pick up a friend and has the wrong address?
Since social media is a relatively new phenomenon, the laws aren’t always clear on where free speech — within the confines of mediums with their own terms of service and user agreements — ends and libel or defamation begins.
Libel, as defined by Black’s Law Dictionary, is “any publication that is injurious to the reputation of another.” That includes words, pictures and videos. Slander is similar to libel, but often pertains broadly to one’s professional or public life. Defamation is inclusive of both slander and libel.
Mark Kende, director of Drake University’s Constitutional Law Center warns contributors of such sites to use caution when identifying specific people online.
“Social media does not shield one from libel or defamation,” Kende said. “If a guy is falsely portrayed and labeled a meth user with a discernible picture, that’s accusing them of committing a crime. That’s grounds for a potential lawsuit.”
Kende said the service providers themselves, such as Twitter and Facebook, are generally protected from lawsuits, as they aren’t responsible for each users’ actions.
Kende said legislation is being considered in some states that would provide protections for those who are victims of online misinformation, but lawmakers are in unchartered territory.
“That kind of law will raise some free speech concerns,” Kende said.
Libel and defamation are civil issues, meaning if one is suspected of it, a civil case can be filed against them. Harassment, on the other hand, can be a criminal offense.
That’s where the plane is crossed into Pottawattamie County District Attorney Matt Wilber’s realm.
“I’m not so much concerned with slander or defamation, as they don’t affect the county attorney’s office,” Wilber said. “What we have to worry about is sometimes people — in their desire to get involved in certain situations — may actually be committing crimes themselves. Online issues can cause an interesting wrinkle with harassment because frequently it’s about somebody, but it’s not to somebody.”
A distinction that is important, as harassment is defined as a “course of conduct directed at a specific person”, according to Black’s Law Dictionary.
Wilber also needs to be aware of what information is being distributed to the public, officially and unofficially, as potential jurors can become tainted when too much rumor or hearsay accompanies a major criminal case.
“Say we get a case that has some public interest,” Wilber said. “Then we get the gossip folks spouting off on social media saying things like ‘this person has been a problem for years’ or ‘I’ve seen drug activity in their house’. So a lot of information that would have never gotten into court — which may or may not be true — all of a sudden gets out there. We have to be careful of that.”
When it comes to identifying crimes in progress, Wilber said to leave it to the professionals.
“You get all these folks that have zero training that really have no business being involved in any of this,” Wilber explained. “The police already do a good job of sifting through what is and isn’t legitimate as far as complaints go. The concern with these types of pages is if it rises to a level where law enforcement is getting involved, but it turns out to be nothing, then you’re really just taking officers off duties that they need to do. I am sure a lot of these folks have good intentions, but if it’s distracting law enforcement from legitimate cases to run down what turns out to be — most of the time — not legitimate, then that’s a waste of resources.”
Jeremy Lipschultz, Peter Kiewit Distinguished Professor of Communication at the University of Nebraska-Omaha, has written books about communication via social media. He said he’s seen similar social media activity in Omaha.
“Computer-mediated communication is an extension of face-to-face traditional behavior, but social media creates a wider audience,” Lipschultz said. “Clearly, anyone can be sued for libel, though it is much more likely that mainstream media would be a target in a case of false information. I think that there is an understanding about the informality of rumor and gossip. Although we are encouraged to participate in neighborhood watch programs, online posts frequently include speculation that jumps to a conclusion.”
With billions of users worldwide, social media is here to stay. Regulations and laws can help reign in the most egregious offenders, but personal responsibility seems to be the most effective force at keeping false allegations and libelous behavior at bay.
“There are no easy answers when it comes to use of social media,” Lipschultz added. “We value the freedom to exercise our First Amendment rights, but too often, speakers lack social responsibility in their communication. We are seeing a lot of fresh case law based upon content on Twitter, Facebook and other popular sites.”