More Than Sharing Pony Pictures: The Unintended Consequences of Social Media

Photo © Lauren Mauldin


As social media platforms and apps such as Twitter, WhatsApp, Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat, and YouTube Vanced become increasingly enmeshed in the fabric of our lives, the unintended consequences of their use cannot be overstated. How many times has barn drama fired up to unnecessary proportions due to social media engagement? And often times, the consequences are far more significant than harsh looks during lessons. On November 8, 2018, Tesla, Inc. named Robyn Denholm as board chair, removing Elon Musk, the company’s founder, from the position after he made a series of “false and misleading” tweets about taking Tesla private. Musk agreed to step aside as chairman of Tesla, Inc., and pay a $20 million fine in September after the Security and Exchange Commission charged him with securities fraud.

The stakes for inappropriate remarks on social media are rising even as executives, politicians, and ordinary individuals are increasingly using social media to share their messages, both formally and informally. Some corporate CEOs have become minor celebrities and influencers at an entirely new grass-roots level. Politicians take to it to share their messages with their constituents, creating a sense of rapport. 

Despite the feeling of intimacy, social media can be a very public forum. It feels like a platform to share an adorable shot of your favorite pony with your closest friends, but as equestrians build larger audiences the private intricacies of our barn lives are being put on a global stage. Increasingly courts are finding that evidence gleaned from social media can be used in both civil and criminal litigation, and the Supreme Court has ruled on a number of issues relating to its use, giving rise to the need for its users to weigh the risks and rewards of its use. And as we saw in the Tesla case, corporations can be held accountable for the words of their executives, forcing companies to assess a whole new area of risk.

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

The rise of social media as evidence is recent and rapid. It was less than a decade ago, in 2009, that Daniel Knight Hayden became the first person to be prosecuted based on his use of social media, after he tweeted “START THE KILLING NOW” and made clear his intentions to turn an April 15 tax protest into a mass murder. Today, however, both civil litigation and criminal prosecutions based on individuals’ social media usage are common, and records gleaned from it are regularly accepted as evidence. For example, on September 27, 2018 Christine Blasey Ford testified before the Senate Judiciary Panel about her use of WhatsApp to communicate with the Washington Post. In July 2018, the New York Times reported that special counsel Robert Mueller III was “scrutinizing” tweets and other negative statements from the president about Attorney General Jeff Sessions and former FBI Director James Comey. 

It may seem like the examples listed above are far removed from the equestrian industry, but social media is just as complicated in the horse world. Sharing about a bad ride or horse show could put a spotlight on negative qualities about a sales horse, complicating issues for professionals. Venting about (or hiding!) a frustrating injury to friends on Facebook could be implicated in insurance fraud depending on the circumstances of the event. It’s extremely complicated, and it’s not getting simpler.

As a result, social media has increasingly become part of an attorney’s litigation strategy. Attorneys often use social media to provide appropriate representation to a client, and analyzing the public presence of witnesses, potential parties, or even one’s own client has become reasonable and expected. However, information from social media must be gathered legally and ethically. Bypassing privacy settings or “friending” someone to gain access to their account has been generally deemed unethical and, in some cases, illegal. Information gleaned this way can jeopardize an otherwise solid legal case. 

Photo © Lauren Mauldin

For those using social media, a few rules by which to live. Don’t post anything on social media you wouldn’t want the world to see, because they might. Conduct trainings for your employees discussing what is appropriate to post, and model appropriate behavior. And most important, think before you click. Today’s impulse might be tomorrow’s ruined relationship with your trainer.

Because each social media platform comes with its own rules, policies, and procedures, it is essential that those interested in assessing the risks associated with it, either proactively or reactively, or in training employees about its use work with professionals who understand the nuances and the dos and don’ts of reviewing information on each platform. 

Our practitioners have decades of experience and come from a variety of backgrounds—including career investigators, former members of federal and state law enforcement, and forensic examiners—allowing our team to work together to help clients assess and mitigate attendant risks, and when pursuing the use of social media as evidence, to ensure that information is gathered, preserved, and used in a legal and ethical manner.

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