06 Jul
Verlie at work

When Verlie Oosthuizen noticed how inherently nice people turned into trolls on social media, she decided to make it her life’s work to try to stop the rot, writes Debbie Reynolds

She’s the fourth-generation attorney in her family but the first to take on the murky world of social media law. When Verlie Oosthuizen first suggested to the partners at Shepstone & Wylie Attorneys that they should consider a social media department she got the old “ja, ja” response.

Today she runs a busy and successful one-woman social media show as part of her responsibility as a partner in the company’s Employment Law team.

Growing up with an attorney father, Martin Oosthuizen, and a writer mother – the famous Marguerite Poland – Verlie matriculated at St Mary’s, then studied at the University of KZN where she earned her BA, LLB. It stood to reason that she would do her articles at Shepstone & Wylie, a respected law firm at which her great uncle was one of the early partners. She had her heart set on employment law – her father’s speciality – and was thrilled when she was allowed to clerk in his department.

As social media began its insidious creep into the workplace, Verlie became increasingly interested in how it could affect the employers she represented. “From the employees’ side, even, I warned my friends who liked to vent on social media that they could be in danger of being fired.”

Having watched social media platforms closely for several years, it was in 2014 that she began pressurising her “boss”, Michael Maeso, and other partners to create a social media law department. She finally got her way and with the support of the team she is now considered one of the country’s leading experts with radio slots and training in schools, universities and other public platforms.

“Since I had decided to be a social media expert, I thought I better have the qualifications,” laughs Verlie. “So, I’ve been doing courses at Wits University which means travelling every week for lectures and to write exams. There have been some hilarious moments while phoning in my recording when I’m sitting in a cupboard or in a remote corner of an airport so that there’s no noise.”

With a busy practice, her travels, studies and two young children – Hope, seven, and William, five, Verlie has had to cut back on her love of endurance sport. With two Comrades, three Two Oceans and an Iron Man to her credit, she is now only too happy to have time at the weekends to spend with her family.

“My husband Greg Briscoe runs his own family business and I’m lucky he knows me so well – we were friends at school – and is incredibly supportive,” she says.

In negotiating the minefield that is social media, Verlie says it is important to understand that it is any platform where you are connecting with other people and uploading and downloading content. We asked her for advice on what to do and not do in the workplace and in “private”.


At Work

You need to be aware of your workplace’s social media policy and what is regarded as appropriate or not. “If you’re a shock jock at a radio station then you will obviously have more latitude than if, for example, you work at a bank,” said Verlie. “If the content of your social media communication harms your company’s reputation you can be disciplined and even fired – even if it’s on your private Facebook page, done on your computer at home in your own time.

“Actress and comedienne Roseanne Barr’s popular TV show was recently cancelled after she posted a racist tweet.”

Be careful you don’t inadvertently share confidential information. “There was a case of a clerk who took a picture at her desk and posted it on social media not realising it had captured a confidential document. She got into significant trouble.”

Saying anything derogatory about your employer, management or colleagues and causing disruption in the workplace can be a dismissible offence.

Verlie said it was also not appropriate to have no social media presence. “You need just enough so it doesn’t look like you’re hiding something.”


At Home

While you have a right to freedom of expression you are also bound by the country’s laws which include defamation and crimen injuria considerations. “There is legislation in place which deals with discriminatory speech and you don’t have the expectation of privacy when you post on social media,” says Verlie. “Penny Sparrow is a case in point.”

The KZN south coast estate agent, who described black beachgoers as monkeys, was fined R150 000 by the Equity Court.

“By using what is regarded as hate speech or by defaming someone, legal consequences could be police charges, the Equality Court, the SA Human Rights Commission proceedings or even a
criminal record.”

Prospective employers do a social media audit when researching your history, so be sure there is nothing incriminating.

Be careful what data you share as it can be used by hackers in cybercrime.

“Have good privacy settings and strong passwords – don’t ever share personal details like your birthdate, ID number, address and banking details,” says Verlie.


For Children/Parents

Don’t share or store nude pictures. “I am often asked by boys if they can get into trouble if they have nude pictures on their phones even if they didn’t ask for them,” says Verlie. Yes, you can, you need to delete them as they may be regarded as child porn.

“It’s shocking but sharing nude pictures is now considered a currency with children. Boys ask for the pictures and girls oblige without realising the consequences.”

If children are allowed phones at school, teachers should be allowed access to them without pushback from learners or parents. “Allowing phones in the classroom is a recipe for disaster. There are kids who will sit in the back of the class and watch Netflix or worse.”

She says parents should install “nanny” apps to stop their children from watching porn. “Sites like Snapchat have age restrictions for a reason and parents should know what their children are accessing,” says Verlie. “Studies have shown that children as young as seven are watching porn and it can have a really detrimental effect on their sexual development.”

She said parents were not doing their children a favour by allowing them to have smartphones, but that peer pressure was a problem. She cited a study done by a professor at NYU Business School which showed that depression and anxiety levels in teenagers had increased exponentially in the last 10 years – around the same time as Facebook and smartphones took off.

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