Price to Pay for Giving “Likes” on Facebook

Jane Tsai

On June 27, 2017, Mark Zuckerberg posted an article on Facebook to declare that the population of active Facebook users had exceeded 2 billion.  He further stated that Facebook would continue to dedicate to linking this world in order to bring people closer to each other.  Indeed, while the China Wall is yet to be broken, Facebook has made an outstanding achievement by linking over one fourth of the world population in a network.  However, have the results of such linkage brought people closer to each other or triggered more disputes? The function each Facebook user has used with the highest frequency is indubitably giving “likes.”   However, there are incessant cases where Facebook users in various countries get into trouble by giving “likes” on Facebook.

I. Although “likes” given in different countries look the same, the price to pay varies from country to country.

(1) A Swiss man was found to have committed libel by giving a “like.”

In 2015, a 45-year-old man gave a “like” to a post in which an animal lover had been criticized as an anti-Semitic and racist and was fined 4,000 francs for libel in 2017 by a local district court in Switzerland.  The court held that giving a “like” disseminates a judgment call and forms the personal opinion of the “like” giver by endorsing or supporting such post.

(2) In 2009, six police officers in the US were fired for giving “likes” to the Facebook page of an election adversary of the incumbent sheriff who was running for re-election.

After the incumbent sheriff was successfully re-elected, the six police officers were fired.  The police officers believed that they were inappropriately let go since giving “likes” on Facebook should be protected for freedom of speech and should not be cited as a reason for discharge. In 2010, a district court in the US concluded that the discharge was lawful on the ground that giving “likes” is not sufficient speech and thus is not protected for freedom of speech under the First Amendment to the US Constitution.  After the police officers appealed, the federal appellate court reversed the original decision in 2013 and held that the discharge was illegal on the ground that expression of opinions on the Internet, which is tantamount to erecting political slogans on people’s front yards, should certainly be protected for freedom of speech under the Constitution.

(3) “Facebook fired”

In addition, since it is quite common to come across in different countries cases where an individual is fired for giving “likes” to discriminative posts or making inappropriate comments on Facebook, this has even formed a new type of discharge known as “Facebook fired” (meaning the termination of employment for Facebook usage).

II. Taiwan Courts’ interpretation on giving “likes”

It is not uncommon to see cases in news media where individuals giving “likes” on Facebook are sued for libel or public humiliation.  For example, a junior high school student in Taiwan ridiculed another student on Facebook in January 2013 and received “likes” from 63 students.  The parents of the ridiculed student pressed charges against the 64 students for libel.  However, there has not been a case in Taiwan where the offense of libel or public humiliation is constituted for giving “likes” yet.

Even so, there are still several relevant practical opinions for reference in Taiwan concerning how to evaluate the behavior of giving “likes” on Facebook.  For example, the 103-Shen-Zi-34 Decision rendered by the Kaohsiung District Court of Taiwan indicated: “There are several reasons for giving ‘likes’ to articles, pictures or shared contents posted by others on Facebook.  It is either because of complete or partial approval of the contents posted by others or of support or attention to the posts of others.  It is also possible that a ‘like’ is given simply because the giver has read the post but does not know how to respond in another way.  It is even possible that there is no specific reason for doing so.  Therefore, the precondition that the individuals giving ‘likes’ have comprehended the entire contents or thread of the post to which they give ‘likes’ may not necessarily be established.  If the Defendant is indeed found to indicate the Plaintiff as shown in the text in the attached table merely because the message posted by the Defendant received “likes” from others, this probably overlooked the actual circumstances of social media and was not consistent with the reality.”

III. Beyond giving “likes”

The finding of the Swiss court that giving “likes” is tantamount to endorsing a post and conveys positive support is not necessarily recognized by Facebook users.  After all, before the other five responses such as “love,” “wow,” “haha,” “sad” and “angry” were provided by Facebook in February 2016, massive Facebook users could only have conveyed their concern about a post by giving “likes.”  In that case, should that be interpreted as the endorsement or positive support of such criminal activities by individuals giving the “likes” as well?

Has the issue concerning the significance of giving “likes” been addressed after Facebook provided other response options in February 2016?We can say that now that “angry” is one of the available responses, a Facebook user giving a “like” to a post containing criminal news endorses such post, right?

Of course not.  In fact, statistics of Facebook show that “like” was still the most commonly chosen response several months after the new response options were provided.  For a long time, most Facebook users have still been used to giving “likes.”  Although other options are added, still the default option is “like.”  It is very possible that “likes” given by Facebook users merely indicate their attention to the posts of their Facebook friends, and it is even possible that they give “likes” to such posts without finishing reading the entire posts simply to convey they “have seen the posts.”

With the ever growing population of Facebook users, people have spent more and more time on interactions on the Internet.  The language used in interactions on social media is still different from that used in people’s physical domain of interaction.  The emerging issue at this juncture is how to accurately interpret the meaning of communication implied by “like” as a digital symbol through relevant information such as the context and relevant posts rather than mechanically interpreting giving “likes” as positive support or even endorsement.