Social media 101: To post or not to post?

That GIF you used to reply to a WhatsApp group message isn’t the only thing that could land you in hot water, according to the new Social Media Charter.

There’s no shortage of sharing in the world today, but it is often not motivated by a ‘sharing is caring’ philosophy.

Social media has given people the means to share their views and those of others in real time. But, should you always post what comes to mind?

Your words, whether written or spoken out loud, have an impact on how you are perceived – and can lead to you being punished for defamation, copyright infringement, or the spreading of hate speech, among others.

To ‘create awareness and suggest ways in which social media platforms can be used responsibly, while being aware of the rights of the user and other persons’, the South African Human Rights Commission (SAHRC) has compiled the Social Media Charter.

Over the next few weeks, Caxton Local Media will unpack this charter so that you tune into something other than your notifications – your conduct.

Freedom of speech or speechless

South Africa’s Constitution gives every citizen the right to speak their mind. However, this ‘right’ does not give you the freedom to say whatever comes to mind.

“When you share any content on social media, make sure that it does not include expression that could reasonably be understood to demonstrate a clear intention to be hurtful, harmful and promote or propagate against another person based on their race, gender, sex, pregnancy, marital status, ethnic or social origin, colour, sexual orientation, age, disability, religion, conscience, belief, culture, language, birth and HIV/Aids status,” the charter explains.

These are but a few examples and do not cover the whole list of taboo areas.

“You should also refrain from attacking or disparaging other people based on grounds that cause or perpetuate systemic disadvantage, undermine human dignity, or harm them in a serious manner that is comparable to discrimination on the basis of a protected trait.

“Harmful expressions can be in the form of direct statements, jokes, photos, videos, poems, songs, artwork, GIFs, memes, emojis, dramatisations, skits, etc. Bear in mind that expression can cause harm, whether you intend for it to do so or not.”

The charter highlights that there might be a fine line between freedom of expression and society’s conflicting interests. “It is for this reason that Section 16(2) of the Constitution makes it clear that certain types of expression are not protected by the right to freedom of expression.”

These are:

  • Propaganda for war (encouraging, calling for or trying to influence people to start a war)
  • Incitement of imminent violence (encouraging, calling for or trying to influence people to commit acts of violence)
  • Advocacy of hatred that is based on race, ethnicity, gender or religion and that constitutes incitement to cause harm (generally known as hate speech)

What to do in the event of harmful expression

There are steps you can take to protect your rights:

  • Have a look at the rules applicable to the social platform and report the user and/or the post using the platform’s internal mechanism
  • Block the user from contacting you on the platform to prevent any further abusive communications
  • The SAHRC has the power to investigate and help you secure redress in situations where human rights have been violated. Anyone can lodge a complaint with the commission on their own behalf, on behalf of another person or on behalf of an organisation. Complaints can be lodged online at
  • Approach the equality court. Equality courts are specialised courts designated to hear matters relating to unfair discrimination, hate speech and harassment in terms of the Promotion of Equality and Prevention of Unfair Discrimination Act 4 of 2000. All magistrate’s courts and high courts function as equality courts and you do not need a lawyer to lodge a case, nor do you have to pay a fee to lodge a case
  • Consult with a lawyer, including at a pro bono clearing house, university law clinic, or civil society organisation to explore your further legal remedies to protect and advance your human rights

The commission says at the equality court, a clerk will explain the process to you and assist you with the paperwork to initiate your claim. If you prefer, the commission can assist you to lodge a case.

“The equality court has the power to issue a range of different orders once it rules that your rights have been violated, for example, it can order the offending party to apologise or pay damages.

“Under sections 14 and 15 of the Cybercrimes Act 19 of 2020, a criminal charge can be laid against a person who sends or posts a message that incites or threatens: The causing of any damage to property belonging to a person or a group of persons, and violence against a person or a group of persons.”

What else to avoid

The list of what you can and cannot say is ever changing, but the general rule of thumb is ‘if you are unsure, be kind’.

Stay clear of:

  • Defamation
  • Intruding on someone’s privacy
  • Degrading, humiliating or seriously insulting another person (crimen injuria)
  • Harassment and bullying
  • Image-based violence (posting images/videos without their consent)
  • Dis- and misinformation
  • Cyberbullying

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