The Consequences of Accusing Someone of Harassment on Social Media

September 12th, 2020

People use social media platforms like Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, SnapChat, and more increasingly TikTok to share their opinions about just about every topic under the sun and rely on the thumbs of their online connections to click away and spread the message far and wide. Social media can be a powerful tool for sharing thoughts, informing others, and even helping your community to stay safe when there is a possible threat or danger.

It comes as no surprise, then, that when people feel like they have been harassed or have witnessed an incident of harassment, they turn to social media to tell their story. Motivations for posting information about an incident of harassment can vary from wanting to vent one’s frustrations, to reaching out to trusted friends and family for support, to warn others of the alleged harasser’s behaviour and character, or to seek revenge by calling out the alleged harasser. Regardless of one’s intention or motivation, there are some serious consequences of posting allegations of harassment on social media.

If you’re short on time and can’t read the full article, let me give you a spoiler fast-track. If you’re thinking about accusing someone of harassment via social media …. don’t!

Posting accusations of any type on social media carries of number of uncontrollable risks and can set off a chain reaction of unintended and potentially life-changing consequences for anyone involved, including but not limited to the poster, the audience who reads and engages with the post, the accused, the alleged victim, bystanders, witnesses, and the employers, friends and families of all of the aforementioned players.

Here are some things to consider before posting, engaging with, or even reading information about an alleged harassment or harasser on social media.

Social Media Posts Offer Limited Context
By nature, social media posts are meant to be short, concise updates. All platforms have character limits and maximum time lengths for videos to keep the information flowing quickly for their viewers. As such, it is incredibly difficult to tell the full story behind any social media post, let alone a situation as complex as harassment.

Should you find yourself in the situation where you feel the need to express concern or to report an incident of harassment, social media is not the medium to choose because you cannot fully tell the story and give all of the necessary background information to fully inform the audience.

Likewise, if you are reading a post about harassment, keep this limitation in mind – you don’t likely know the full story and could be misrepresenting yourself by engaging with the post while not fully informed.

And should you have the misfortune to be called out on social media as a harasser, don’t fuel the fire by trying to correct any misinformation, contact the accused, or fill in any gaps in the story. Immediately take the conversation off-line by reaching out to your legal counsel. (See my previous post about What to do if you have been accused of sexual harassment on social media).

Posts Never Disappear Completely
All actions conducted and information shared on a social media platform are “licenced out” to the owner of the social media platform. If you look Facebook Terms of Service about deleting content, for example (as of September, 2020) they read:
When you delete content, it’s no longer visible to other users, however it may continue to exist elsewhere on our systems where:
◦ immediate deletion is not possible due to technical limitations (in which case, your content will be deleted within a maximum of 90 days from when you delete it);
◦ your content has been used by others in accordance with this license and they have not deleted it (in which case this license will continue to apply until that content is deleted); or
◦ where immediate deletion would restrict our ability to:
▪ investigate or identify illegal activity or violations of our terms and policies (for example, to identify or investigate misuse of our Products or systems);
▪ comply with a legal obligation, such as the preservation of evidence; or
▪ comply with a request of a judicial or administrative authority, law enforcement or a government agency;
in which case, the content will be retained for no longer than is necessary for the purposes for which it has been retained (the exact duration will vary on a case-by-case basis).

So in other words, even if you wish to delete something that you posted on your Facebook account about an incident of harassment or an alleged harasser, Facebook may be obligated to retain and provide that information if legal action has been taken. This includes any comments that you may have typed on someone else’s social media post about harassment.

Even if you are not concerned about legal action but want to retract something you’ve said on social media about a harassment incident, if anyone has shared or taken a screenshot of the post, you will have little to no control over deleting that information and stopping it from spreading further. It only takes one connection within your privacy settings to share the post for it to become publicly visible to anyone on or off the social media platform. #RunawayTrain

Once Posted, The Narrative Can Change
In conjunction with the points above regarding the near impossibility to tell the full story, or to delete content that has been posted to social media, users also have to consider that any parts of their story including images and videos can easily be re-posted or shared by media outlets and other social media users who may not protect the original integrity of the post. Details can be changed or omitted, and it can be difficult for users to determine who the original poster is, and the information and intentions associated with the original post.

Posts are Considered Evidence and Discoverable
If the points discussed here so far haven’t convinced you of the dangers of posting or engaging with information about harassment on social media, do consider that social media posts can be considered as discoverable evidence in court. Social media posts, comments, images, videos, and even “thumbs of support” are as admissible as any paper trail or audio/visual recording.

The Pendulum Swings Both Ways
And to drive home my point further, do consider the fact that the runaway train that has been building momentum throughout this blog post could actually jump track and change course entirely.

Start with the fact that should you choose to post information on social media about an incident of harassment, you are inviting your circle of connections to engage with the post. Your viewers can show their approval or disapproval of the post in any way they choose, furthering the conversation with comments about the incident, and about you, in varying degrees of truth and accuracy.

Should the post travel outside your immediate connections due to multiple “shares”, “reposts” or “retweets”, this amplified and altered conversation could shift course entirely and end up being harmful to you and your character. True or not, amplified social media posts become increasingly public, even more difficult to delete, nearly impossible to track fully, and could be used in an unintended way as legal evidence.

Food for thought when picking up your phone to tap out your thoughts about harassment. You’re much better off by contacting a trusted friend or legal counsel.