Bits & Bytes: Cases show risks, rewards of using Twitter

Since Twitter entered the social media arena in 2005, its popularity has exploded to the point where it now boasts 500 million registered users. In 2013, Twitter is an invaluable tool for businesses and individuals alike. The service provides a platform by which you can reach millions of users all over the world to promote yourself, your products or your services. However, as with all social media platforms, Twitter has its risks as well.

Twitter only provides a platform for users, so how it affects their life and business will depend on how they interact with the service. Users who invest time and energy into formulating and executing a well-designed plan for their social media presence can have a tremendous impact and reap significant rewards. But users can also suffer tremendous damage to their reputation should things go wrong. The way some lawyers use Twitter demonstrates this dichotomy.

Lawyer Andrew Langille tweets, blogs, and generally advocates on behalf of youth and their rights in the workplace. Langille has been providing quality content through his blog, Youth and Work, for some time now and has done great work by highlighting the injustices that exist in the workplace for youth workers. One of Langille’s primary concerns is the proliferation of unpaid internships throughout Canada.

More recently, Langille has begun using Twitter to actively bring attention to illegal attempts to hire unpaid interns throughout Canada. One of the tactics Langille has been using is to specifically identify individuals and businesses that are seeking to hire unpaid interns and to publicize this fact through his Twitter account.

Langille isn’t the only member of the legal community to have taken to using social media to advocate for a cause. Early in 2012, Heather Peters, a former lawyer, sued Honda in the California Small Claims Court for failing to fulfil its promise that its Civic model would deliver 50 miles to the gallon. Peters launched a web site, dontsettlewithhonda.org, and claimed hundreds of other car owners had contacted her seeking instructions on how to begin their own case against the company. The case gained tremendous notoriety in the traditional press as well as on Twitter and Peters was able to obtain a judgment of $9,867.00 against Honda (although the company has since had the judgment overturned on appeal).

Another situation demonstrates the perils of Twitter. In the wake of the recent Boston Marathon bombings, a Twitter account associated with criminal defence lawyer David Da Silva included postings with a number of inflammatory comments. “I applaud as I always do the gratifying words of ‘Officer Down’ To whomever did that, I thank u for your service,” read one tweet.

Understandably, the Toronto Police Association reacted with outrage. While Da Silva denies posting the comments, the case demonstrates the risks of social media since your social media profile reflects who you are as a lawyer and an individual.

A user’s profile is usually accessible to colleagues, co-workers, superiors, potential clients, and the general public. Users who make a mistake will be open to the same consequences they’d face had they published a controversial comment in a newspaper. At the same time, social media transmits information rapidly to a large audience. Users can delete their tweets or deactivate their account, but the damage is usually already done by that point.

I started with Langille and Peters’ stories because they’re examples of how the profession can use social media to advocate for people’s rights. However, the flipside is users can also incur a tremendous backlash that can have serious repercussions for both their private and professional lives.

Monica Goyal is a lawyer and technology entrepreneur. She’s the founder of My Legal Briefcase and Simply Small Claims. You can follow her on twitter at @monicangoyal.

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