Firm News

Lawsuits Against Social Media Companies

 Business meeting to discuss social media advertisingDue to the virtual nature of social media platforms, people of all ages feel entitled to speak their minds without regard to how their comments might be interpreted. The subsequent increase in cyberbullying and similar issues has ultimately resulted in lawsuits. Advertising on social media platforms has also resulted in lawsuits due, in many cases, to ads directed to children and adolescents that perpetuate mental health problems, including addiction. Lawsuits against social media platforms may help to ensure the safety of children while allowing companies to advertise or sell products using social media. Consider contacting a New York product liability attorney from Schwab & Gasparini to discuss your legal options by calling (315) 422-1333 in Syracuse, (518) 591-4664 in Albany, or (914) 304-4353 in White Plains or Hudson Valley.

Which Social Media Platforms Are Being Sued and Why?

More than 140 actions have been filed against social media platforms in jurisdictions across the United States, including 42 states and multiple school districts. These lawsuits have been filed against Meta (parent company of Facebook and Instagram), ByteDance (parent company of TikTok), Google (parent company of YouTube), and Snap (parent company of Snapchat). 

A number of these lawsuits against social media companies claim that the platforms are causing physical and emotional harm to children. Some lawsuits against Meta specifically claim that the platform has significantly altered the social and psychological realities of an entire generation of youth in the United States. Some of the specific claims the lawsuits have made include: 

  • Using algorithms that show harmful content to children
  • Not offering beginnings or ends to the feed
  • Not offering screen time limits
  • Recommending children’s accounts to adults
  • Offering insufficient parental controls and notifications
  • Having weak age verification systems
  • Using addictive algorithms

What Does This Mean for Businesses That Are Not Social Media?

Business owners whose companies are not engaged in the development of social media platforms may think that they do not need to be concerned about lawsuits against social media. However, even businesses that offer physical products unrelated to online activity may be impacted by the decisions made in these lawsuits if they advertise on social media or use any social media platform to connect with consumers. Businesses that may also be impacted by these decisions are those that specifically offer online services for children, such as: 

  • Educational websites
  • Gaming platforms
  • Websites connected to children’s books, magazines, shows, or toys

Any business that uses social media, as paid or unpaid advertising or simply to connect with consumers, may be impacted if the end user of its product is a child. A key point to remember is that the types of speech businesses make online are not always protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States, according to The White House. These types of speech are often what is called commercial speech, which is regulated by different rules. Some of these rules include the following: 

  • Identifying anyone paid to contribute to the post
  • Using no fraudulent or misleading content
  • Reposting praise of the company’s product only under specific circumstances

How Can Businesses Protect Themselves From Facing Similar Lawsuits?

Fortunately, there are some things that businesses can do to protect themselves against similar lawsuits. Whether the business specifically creates products for children or simply has products that could be enticing to children, a few actions can help to prevent companies from being sued for harming children. 

Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act

According to the Code of Federal Regulations, the Children’s Online Privacy Protection Act (COPPA) is a federal law that was passed in 1998 to protect children’s privacy online, specifically children under age 13. COPPA specifically prohibits the following: 

  • Unfair or deceptive acts or practices connected to the collection, use, or disclosure of children’s personal information online
  • Requesting, prompting, or encouraging a child to submit personal information online without parental consent
  • Enabling a child to make personal information available publicly online in identifiable form without parental consent
  • Passive tracking of a child online

Businesses might consider implementing policies to ensure that they not only have parental consent but also some type of proof (such as a copy of a driver’s license) to ensure that the parent or parents are the ones consenting. Business owners may also want to speak with an attorney to discuss other ways to ensure compliance with COPPA and protection from parents who may later claim that their child’s information was illegally collected. An experienced attorney with Schwab & Gasparini may be able to assist in developing in-house procedures for collecting and verifying parental consent.

Code of Conduct

Businesses may also want to consider enacting a written, clearly detailed code of conduct that complies with both COPPA and commercial speech regulations to ensure that anyone who represents the company online will present the same information and image to the public. The code of conduct should apply to all social media, emails, video calls, and intra-company communications like Slack that could potentially be made public in a lawsuit. 

Additionally, the code of conduct should be provided to any outside social media management agencies that the company works with. The company should also ensure that the social media management firm, as well as anyone within the company, uses a tool that allows the company to easily determine who is posting what content. This will allow the company to take appropriate action if something against the code of conduct or commercial speech rules is posted. 

Advertising and Product Packaging Designs

Bright colors, animated characters, and vivid descriptions of fun and enjoyment are hallmarks of children’s products for both their advertising and packaging. However, some adult products, including some alcoholic beverages, may feature some of the same characteristics. Therefore, it is important that businesses carefully consider their choices when designing advertising campaigns and product packaging. If products are not meant for children, businesses should consider implementing changes to make the products less appealing to a child or to ensure that the product is very conspicuously intended for adults only. 

Additionally, if there is potential for negative impact on children (e.g., bullying on a gaming website), companies should consider disclosing the potential and offering suggestions, such as parental supervision, to avoid those negative impacts. Companies may also want to offer parents additional tools to help avoid those impacts, such as parental controls that let parents limit screen time, an off switch for chat functions, or restrictions for access to certain areas of the website. 

What if Companies Are Using Celebrity or Social Media Influencers as Part of Their Advertising Efforts?

Children tend to look up to both child and adult celebrities. They also look up to social media influencers and often aspire to be one themselves. This admiration of celebrities and social media influencers seems like a wonderful thing for businesses, as they can often offer free products to celebrities and influencers in exchange for reviews online. Businesses may also be able to get more benefit from a celebrity’s or influencer’s paid endorsement than from a general commercial on TV or an advertisement in a corner of a website. However, these types of posts can come with their own drawbacks that businesses need to consider before moving forward with partnerships. 

Influencer Honesty

While children tend to watch influencer videos for entertainment purposes, they can inform children’s preferences. Obviously, this is the business’s intention when they partner with an influencer. However, businesses should remember that these videos are short snippets and may give a false perception to children about the influencer’s life. Part of this false perception may include the idea that the product has provided the influencer with money, happiness, or other benefits that may or may not be accurate. 

Additionally, some influencers who present themselves as experts have actually purchased fake likes and followers to be able to call themselves influencers. If these fake likes and followers are discovered by the social media platform, the influencer’s account may be shut down. When this happens, the real followers frequently learn what the influencer did. This not only tarnishes the influencer’s reputation but may tarnish the reputation of any brand associated with the influencer. 

Influencer Disclosure

The Federal Trade Commission has several regulations about advertising and influencer disclosures. The basic element of the regulations is that influencers must disclose any material connection with the brand. A material connection may include a personal, employment, or family relationship to the brand. A financial relationship, such as receiving free or discounted products or services or being paid to endorse the product or service, is also a material connection. 

When businesses choose to work with influencers, they will need to include language in their contract terms to ensure that the influencers will make the appropriate disclosures regarding the promoted product or service. Additionally, businesses should ensure that the influencers comply with any other advertising disclosure requirements, such as checking the “video contains paid promotion” box in YouTube’s advanced settings. 

Influencer Privacy and Mental Health

When marketing children’s products, using child influencers may seem like an ideal solution. These influencers can be very relatable to children. However, as these lawsuits against social media are filed and proceed through the court system, many ethical questions are beginning to arise. Specifically, parents, experts, and others are questioning the impact of the lack of privacy and possible psychological effects that can be part of being an influencer. 

While no one seems to have any definite, clear answers to these ethical questions yet, businesses may want to consider the impact on their brand of continuing to work with child influencers. In the future, experts and parents may determine that it is not in a child’s best interests to be an influencer. If that happens, some brands may find themselves at risk of being added to a long list of names as part of today’s “cancel culture” due to the perception that they have exploited minors for profit.

Are You Concerned About the Potential Impact of Lawsuits Against Social Media on Your Business?

Social media has permeated so many aspects of life in general. One such aspect is the way businesses advertise to and connect with consumers. Social media has become an integral part of most business marketing plans. Because of this, the current lawsuits against social media could have a significant impact on many businesses. Whether you are concerned about how these lawsuits could impact your business or have more general questions about how businesses can protect themselves from legal risks while using social media platforms, an experienced New York product liability attorney from Schwab & Gasparini may be able to help. Consider contacting one of their offices to discuss your legal options. Call the White Plains or Hudson Valley office at (914) 304-4353, the Syracuse office at (315) 422-1333, or the Albany office at (518) 591-4664.

Sun Feb 25 2024, 12:00am