Social Media: Is a Facebook Friend Really A Friend?

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The Florida Supreme Court recently decided a case involving a request to have a judge recuse himself from a lawsuit merely because an attorney for one of the parties was a “Facebook friend.” Resolving a split between Florida appellate circuits, the court determined that Facebook friendship is different than the traditional notion of friendship and that without more, a judge need not disqualify himself or herself from a case solely on the basis of Facebook friendship. The case is Law Offices of Herssein and Herssein, P.A. v. United Services Automobile Association, 43 Fla. L.Weekly, S565b (Fla. 2018).

How many of you have Facebook friends with whom you are either barely acquainted or never met at all? You may have Facebook friends from your childhood, college years and a part of your current life. However, your Facebook friends may include people you either hardly know or have never met. We each have a different definition or standard for whom we refer to as friends in our conversations with others and whom we “friend” on Facebook and we may have different uses for platforms like Facebook. Social media professionals will tell you how effective Facebook advertising is and the importance of “likes” and “friends” for brand promotion.

Either way, the majority of the supreme court justices focused on how social media has evolved, how Facebook has evolved and the nature of what has become a merger of our personal and professional networks in the digital age. To quote the opinion “[It is] no secret that the friend label means less in cyberspace than it does in the neighborhood, or in the workplace, or on the schoolyard, or anywhere else that humans interact.”

Several judges dissented and focused on the appearance of impropriety and the importance of not undermining the confidence in a judge’s ability to be a neutral arbitrator. The issue does not affect the majority of people directly. However, it raises interesting questions about how our definitions of whom we refer to as a “friend” have changed but, more importantly, our respective digital footprints and the potential universe of implications of our social media usage.

As a trial lawyer, I can tell you Facebook can either be a goldmine or nightmare for evidence in civil and commercial disputes. Employers, attorneys, insurance companies and law enforcement use Facebook and other social media platforms like Instagram and Youtube in their investigations. While we are social in nature and expanding our network has benefits, it also has repercussions. In this digital age, potential viruses and hacks aside, thinking about what you click on or post before you do or with whom or what you associate is just as important as looking before you leap.