Sharing these WhatsApp messages could land you in serious legal problems in South Africa

South Africans must be mindful of what they post and share online, warns social media legal expert Emma Sadleir.

Following the signing into law of the Films and Publications Amendment and Cybercrimes Acts earlier this year, particular messages, posts, and sharing on social media can land you in severe legal trouble.

The Films and Publications Amendment Act criminalises all forms of image-based violence and revenge pornography, while the Cybercrimes Act criminalises any threats to people, groups of people, and property.

Addressing a University of Cape Town seminar to explain the legislative changes, Sadleir said that it had been known for some time that posting harmful content on social media could expose you to legal action.

Sadleir explained that in some cases, even sharing, liking, or failing to call out a harmful post could also land you in trouble.

Harmful messages sent on WhatsApp groups can also land you in trouble, and users who do not want to be implicated have two options — either state that you disapprove of it in the group or leave the group entirely.

“If you don’t do one of those two things, there is an argument that you are in the chain of publication,” Sadleir said.

This is based on a concept in South African law known as the “chain of publication”, which essentially means members of the public are responsible for what they share.

“If I Instagram a picture, and somebody comments underneath that picture – like, uses a racist slur – because it is my Instagram post, I have the ability to delete it; if I don’t, I am legally responsible for it,” Sadleir said.

“We have case law to show that if you ‘like’ something, you are in the chain of publication.”

“Liking something is a very active form of association, so be careful about what you’re liking.”

Social media users, particularly those with large followings, often place phrases like “retweets are not endorsements”.

Sadleir made it clear that this kind of disclaimer will not protect you from potential legal action.

“It is a dangerous thing to have in your mind that there is personal capacity and professional capacity,” she said.

“Be careful about these disclaimers. It is certainly not a magic wand that is going to get you out of any trouble that you may get into as a result of what you’re putting on social media.”

Sadleir advised that good practice was to conduct a “billboard test” before liking, sharing, or posting on social media.

The “billboard test” imagines whatever you plan to post or share on a billboard next to a large picture of your face, name, and details of the company or institution with which you are affiliated.


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Sharing these WhatsApp messages could land you in serious legal problems in South Africa