Social media is a case of few using all, but all using some: while almost no person or business uses all forms of social media, virtually almost all people, businesses, and organisations use some form of social media. Whether it be in the form of promotions, news, research, or even complaints, social media has become the quickest, most basic, and most direct way that people and companies interact. Thanks to this, concepts like marketing and customer service are being constantly rethought for social media application; however, one “rethink” that doesn’t get discussed much is the law. Two days after the world social media day, it is perhaps just the right time to shed some light on social media lawyers.
Starting with an examination of the term itself, the root occupation, lawyer, which is a combination of the Middle English word law (itself from the Old English lagu) with the -ier suffix denoting a profession, simply means ‘one versed in the law’ and is first found in William Langland’s allegorical poem, The vision of William concerning Piers Plowman, which, writing in 1377, states that: “The legislators and lawyers hold this for truth.” Second, is the social media focus of the occupation, which is a combining of social, having its roots in the Latin socialis and meaning ‘united, having a sense of companionship, or living with others’, and the plural form of medium (media), which is ‘a means by which something is expressed’, such as music, text, pictures, etc. As a combined term, social media, in the sense of a computer network where people can interact and share content, first appears in the January 1994 edition of Online magazine: “What attracted librarians to the Internet? For some cybernauts, usenet, irc, and the other social media of the net are the hooks.”
Still, looking at today’s term, you may initially get this odd mental image of a lawyer sitting at a desk and scanning through hundreds of Facebook or Twitter posts, but being a social media lawyer encompasses much more than this. In the same way that social media marketing involves the principles of marketing geared specifically towards social media, social media law involves the use of specific legal areas, such as copyright and trademark infringement issues, online privacy and data protection, marketing guidelines (e.g. disguised advertising and fake valuation), defamation, and promotional guidelines, as they relate to social media.
In fact, one of the specific ways in which social media lawyers will be involved for the near-term future is in the currently booming realm of influencer marketing. Though influencer marketing offers many benefits for the companies who do it (read on how our team helped a social media platform to identify influencer marketing opportunities), recent instances, such as US department store chain Lord & Taylor – a subsidiary of Canada’s Hudson Bay Company during the incident – paying 50 social media influencers to post about a dress on Instagram without disclosing that the posts were sponsored, have caused the US FTC to consider reviewing endorsement guidelines for advertising. Reviews may well lead to further and more strict regulations as well as steeper penalties, which, considering that influencer marketing is set to grow to over EUR 13 billion by 2022, means that companies heavily engaged in social media will be requiring more legal oversight and consultation.
To put it another way, as long as there is the law, we will need lawyers, and the greater the degree that social media matures and becomes more acceptably regulated, the more we will need social media lawyers.