O’Connor: Share like Cher and it could cost you big

Brian J. O'Connor
Detroit News Finance Editor

I’m worried about Cher.

Not that the pop icon might be lingering at death’s door, as reported on the cover of the latest National Enquirer under the headline, “Dying Cher Fading Fast!”

I’m talking about Cher’s Twitter account, which seems to indicate that she’s outsourced management of her online social media presence to Jose Cuervo.

Cher now has weighed in on a very serious and disturbing issue here in my home state of Michigan, where the water supply in the city of Flint was changed by state managers and has now exposed the city’s citizens — including children — to permanently damaging lead poisoning. On her Twitter feed the singer posted: “GOV.Of MICHIGAN IS A MURDERER.” Later, she added, “INCOMPETENT POLITICIANS? THEY R CRIMNAL!! GOV.RICK SNYDER OF MICH. #FIRINGSQUADWORKSFORME”

Pretty harsh for social media.

On the other hand, Cher’s posts do show that she really, really likes her mom’s cheesecake.

Don’t tweet like a twit

Unlike Cher, you might not be calling for the execution of a sitting governor in front of your 3 million Twitter followers. But if your angry tweet or insulting Facebook comment prompts someone to sue for libel, you could end up facing a huge legal bill that would have you wishing you could turn back time.

“That’s going to be six figures of defense costs in most markets,” warns Joseph Balice, a partner in the law firm of Brutzkus Gubner in Los Angeles. “You’re going to need expert witnesses to do the number-crunching and the tech work to look at the scope of the damage, how many unique users saw it and how many retweets there were and more.”

For the average consumer, your homeowner’s policy probably won’t cover your liability for “personal injury.” If that’s the case, you can add a rider that will defend you in a libel suit, says James Lynch, chief actuary for the Insurance Information Institute in New York.

“It’s well under $100 a year typically, and that will cover personal injury,” Lynch says. Another option is to add what’s called an umbrella policy, which covers your liability for everything not explicitly covered by your other policies.

Because it’s insurance, there are plenty of catches. Insurance covers you for libel in two ways: First, it can pay the cost of defending you against a defamation suit. Second, it can pay the judgment if you lose and are found liable. If, however, it turns out that you were extremely reckless or posted false information on purpose, your insurer can decide that it won’t pay the judgment and could even bill you for its legal work.

“It won’t cover you if you’re going out to slander people right and left,” Lynch says.

Your homeowners or umbrella coverage also won’t cover you if your online comments are part of any commercial activity. If you’re selling cupcakes through a Facebook page, tweeting to promote your homemade skin cream or taking ads on your personal travel blog, you’ll need a business policy, says Daniel Prywes, a partner with the firm of Bryan Cave in Washington, D.C.

“If you’re in the publishing business or doing something for economic gain or to promote your business, you should get advertising insurance or media insurance,” Prywes says.

Facebook or facepalm?

Prywes adds that there’s one other big personal finance risk from social media where insurance also won’t protect you: Ticking off the boss.

“Some people don’t understand that you don’t have a constitutional right to say bad things about your employer and not get fired,” Prywes says.

Your best protection against an expensive libel defense is to be careful.

“Don’t post bad stuff about people online,” says Balice of Brutzkus Gubner. “If you’re saying things that aren’t true, you could be exposing yourself to liability.”

In Cher’s case, her tweets are likely to be considered opinion, but she did post one untruth when it comes to putting our governor in front of a firing squad: Michigan doesn’t have the death penalty.

Brian O’Connor is author of “The $1,000 Challenge: How One Family Slashed Its Budget Without Moving Under a Bridge or Living on Government Cheese.”


Twitter: BrianOCTweet

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