It seems that you cannot log into Facebook or Twitter without seeing someone complaining about something. In fact it can seem as though the majority of social media feeds contain rants or attacks on various people or businesses. But is this allowed and what happens when it goes too far?

According to our law, both people and businesses have a right not to be defamed in public. When the law of defamation was developed there was no such thing as social media, but the common law can, and will be applied to the social media sphere. The general user of social media must realise that publishing an unflattering post about a person or a business is probably the equivalent of posting that information on a billboard or on a placard and walking down a street. Even though users may feel somewhat anonymous or self righteous posting information that “names and shames” companies or even other people, it may amount to indefensible and unlawful defamation.

In a case in Gauteng a disgruntled customer had painted complaints about a construction company on his wall. The company approached the court for an order to have them removed and the judge agreed. The court even went so far as to order that the customer could not post any complaints about the company on social media stating that the company had a right not to be defamed and the notice (and presumably posts on social media) would have the effect of discouraging customers from using it.

Although it can be tempting to join the fray when friends are complaining about shoddy service or some other gripe, you should be careful to remain measured and reasonable in your approach. If you are sufficiently mean spirited you may end up in court yourself defending your posts and you will want to ensure that they are defensible.