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Social media and the law: four ways to stay safe online

AOP senior solicitor and director designate, Ella Franci, and AOP clinical director, Dr Peter Hampson share their top tips for avoiding legal trouble on the wild west of the web

Person using laptop

The AOP has shared guidance on how to avoid legal trouble from comments made online.

AOP clinical director, Dr Peter Hampson, explained that many people assume that they can talk freely in closed online groups without any repercussions. However, he emphasised that this is not the case.

“Many ‘closed’ groups can be far larger than anticipated and comments may be copied and repeated outside the group,” Dr Hampson highlighted.

This posed “significant risks” to optometrists and dispensing opticians, he added.

In the worst-case scenario, a practitioner could find themselves facing a General Optical Council (GOC) complaint or legal action.

Dr Hampson shared that online comments could breach standard 17.2 of the GOC’s Standards of Practice, which requires registrants to: “Ensure your conduct in the online environment, particularly in relation to social media, whether or not connected to your professional practice, does not damage public confidence in you or your profession.”

Legal actions that a wayward comment may result in include the risk that a statement is deemed to be defamatory or a malicious falsehood.

AOP senior solicitor and director designate, Ella Franci, explained that a defamatory statement is one that is untrue. It needs to either be published or be capable of being read/listened to by a third party.

A statement is defamatory if it would “tend to lower the individual/business referred to in the comment in the estimation of right thinking members in society generally,” she added.

Ms Franci highlighted that this definition would include comments in closed groups, where posts can be read by potential employees, customers, clients or contacts of the individual or business concerned.

She added that a statement is not defamatory unless its publication has caused or is likely to cause serious harm to the reputation of the individual or business referred to.

Moving on to malicious falsehood, Ms Franci explained that the legal action can be raised as an alternative to defamation.

“Actions for malicious falsehood are rare and require the claimant to prove malice on the part of the defendant,” Ms Franci said.

She added that a defence of fair comment or publication on a matter of public interest may be available.