Death by Facebook

Tony Wilson
Boughton Law
You wouldn’t believe this, but I actually didn’t give a damn about Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter, and other social network platforms until around April 27, 2009, when my niece in Calgary posted my mother’s untimely death as a very surprising status update on her Facebook page, having just heard about it from her sister in Victoria milliseconds before.

My own daughter in New Westminster, B.C., read the update on her Facebook page, and rushed me home from my son’s lacrosse game in Surrey to show me the post and give me the bad news.

It was Death by Facebook; a phrase so catchy, I use it all the time to illustrate how the use of social media without one’s brain switched on can be embarrassing, inappropriate, and career limiting.

My niece’s short-lived career as a “one-time online obituary writer” peaked (and ended) with that shocking pronouncement, because the rest of the family (who you’d think might have wanted the news conveyed a tad more “gently” than on Facebook), had no idea my mother was even sick.

Or for that matter, dead.

In a twist of irony, only a few weeks before, I had been in Victoria, where my mother lived, and stopped in to see her on the way to the Vancouver ferry after a long lunch with an old friend. And wouldn’t you know it, my Mom’s last words to me that day were about her wanting to get on Facebook.

Five months and four days later, I was taken out for drinks by a Vancouver book publisher (at the very popular Burrard Street Cactus Club, if you must know), and I relayed to her the story of my mother’s “Death by Facebook.” After two bottles of Kim Crawford Pinot Noir, the publisher shared with me her cunning plan. All along, she wanted me to write a book about the law of online reputation management, and the importance of protecting yourself from yourself when using social media.

The publisher said she wanted me to do it because of my background in intellectual property law. I think it was something to do with my unabashed knack for shameless self-promotion. I do a lot of writing anyway. So I agreed to write it, and although it was a hell of a lot of work (and probably cost me a lot of otherwise billable hours), I have become somewhat of an expert in the area.

Since the book was released in December, I have been whorishly talking it up in various Toronto and Vancouver newspapers and magazines, pumping up an area of law which wasn’t even an area of law three years ago.

Being a Carleton University Journalism School drop-out, I can safely say I’ve never met a microphone or a publication I didn’t like. I’ll be doing the TV, radio, and lecture circuit in January and February. I have been described as a media slut. I take that as a compliment. (It’s so much better than media “whore.”)

So why am I telling you this instead of the fact that Tom Cruise is in town filming Mission Impossible, the Vancouver Canucks are on a winning streak and thrashed the poor Toronto Maple Leafs at a game I was at last week, or the status of the sinkhole repair on Southeast Marine Drive?

Because in the course of writing this book, I learned that people do profoundly stupid things on Facebook — even lawyers. Lawyers (and support staff who work in law offices) should be reminded not to say or do profoundly stupid or compromising things on social media.

So for the last letter from Law Law Land for the year, I wanted to remind everyone embracing social media to be careful. As lawyers, we probably know some of the most obvious mistakes people make on Facebook and other social media sites. The best are worth repeating.

There’s the story from 2008 about a public relations executive who tweeted to his followers as soon as he got off a plane in Memphis, “I would die if I had to live here.” Of course, the PR executive didn’t realize that Memphis was the head office of FedEx Corp., which was one of his company’s largest clients. And FedEx found out about the tweet.

The Israeli army called off an incursion into a West Bank village because a soldier revealed on Facebook his combat unit, the location of the operation, and when the operation was to begin! He said “On Wednesday we clean up Katana and on Thursday, God willing, we go home.” His Facebook post was discovered by other members of his unit. The soldier was court martialed and sentenced to 10 days in jail.

And Lady Shelley Sawers, the wife of the director of MI6, Britain’s intelligence service, made postings to Facebook about her husband, their family, and their social and professional circle, which exposed potentially compromising details about where they lived and worked, who their “friends” were, and where they went on holiday. Sawers put no privacy protection on the account, and any of Facebook’s then 200 million users could see all her posts, no matter what terrorist organization the users belonged to.

And of course, every few weeks, I read something about someone injured in an accident posting pictures of herself on Facebook dancing up a storm the night she ostensibly couldn’t walk because she was supposed to be home, in pain, convalescing.

Now I’m sure those of you doing personal injury work already tell your clients what they should be posting on Facebook or other social media sites “post-accident." (“Post nothing” would be my advice, because momentary lapses of online reason have a way getting into the hands of insurance investigators intent on denying coverage).

But what about you, or the other people in your law office?

Lawyers are not immune to momentary lapses of online reason, especially if they’re allowing themselves to be geo-located or geo-tagged using Facebook Places or Foursquare, so their buddies can find out what bar they’re at.

Or they’re over-sharing the minutia of their interesting lives to their 235 friends without sufficient privacy protections enabled.

Or they’re allowing photos of themselves to be tagged showing the strip club they were at last week, or the offices of a client.

Or they let slip something inappropriate about a client, or about someone at the office, or someone on the other side of the file regarding the Big Transaction they’re working on that involves the company that developed iTunes (which little post suddenly goes viral, in the career-limiting sense of the word “viral”).

Yes, the news is filled with leaked diplomatic dispatches by Julian Assange and WikiLeaks, and every day we hear high level diplomatic gossip that no one in their right mind would have thought would go public. But we can all have our own mini-WikiLeaks moments by inappropriate use of social media.

So if you’re going to make a useful New Year’s resolution this year, I’d say, by all means, embrace social media, because it's not going away.

But always turn your brain on before you hit “post.” And please, never post someone’s untimely demise on Facebook before the rest of the family knows about it.

Vancouver franchise lawyer Tony Wilson has written for various legal and news publications. He is associate counsel at Boughton Law Corp. His e-mail is [email protected].

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