This blog post is inspired by this article. The article summarizes conservative commentator Tomi Lahren’s fight with her employer to keep her own Facebook page and her 4.2 million Facebook fans. In short, Tomi was suspended from conservative media site The Blaze for comments she made supporting abortion rights while appearing as a guest on ABC’s “The View.” Per Tomi’s contract, the verified Tomi Lahren Facebook page is owned by The Blaze and after her suspension she was accordingly blocked from accessing or using the Facebook page. Per the article, employees of other companies, including BuzzFeed, have had similar grievances after changing jobs. As of yesterday, Tomi has brought a lawsuit against The Blaze and its owner Glenn Beck for wrongful termination. It’s certainly a sticky situation. So what does each side have to gain and lose?
For Tomi, it’s pretty clear that she personally has the most to lose. Over the past several years, she has built a substantial following on social media, with more than 4.2 million likes on Facebook and over 693k followers on Twitter. Whether you agree with her politics or not, it’s obvious that she has substantial social media capital that she has worked hard to acquire and a successful brand that she has built as a result. Her ability to continue making a living as a social media influencer is directly correlated with her ability to leverage that social capital that she has built. If she is unable to regain control of the Tomi Lahren Facebook account, Tomi will be forced to start a new Facebook page and rebuild her base of support. That’s not even considering the challenge in still having The Blaze’s Tomi Lahren Facebook page to contend with. According to Economist.com, social media influencers with a following the size of Tomi Lahren can earn upwards of $90,000 per sponsored post on Facebook:
If you consider that Tomi’s lawsuit may be locked up in court for years, that could end up being a substantial amount of earning power that she misses out on because of her lacking ownership of her own page on Facebook.
For The Blaze, it’s also quite obvious what they have to gain and lose from the battle for control over Tomi’s Facebook page. Tomi’s Facebook page currently has more than double the amount of likes (4.2 million) that The Blaze’s Facebook page has (under 2 million). For a “digital network that provides a platform for a new generation of authentic and unfiltered voices” (which in and of itself is ironic, given the situation), losing control of Tomi’s Facebook account would lead to likely losing at a bare minimum half the audience to your content on Facebook. That becomes a lot less appealing to advertisers and translates to real financial implications. Even if money isn’t the primary concern for the company, there ends up being a substantial loss of political influence for their platform if they can only reach half the amount of people as before. That could be a death knell for The Blaze.
So what’s the solution here? In this particular case, I don’t think there’s any win/win solution. Both parties have a substantial vested interest in trying to keep Tomi’s Facebook page and I imagine there’s too much on the line to just give in to the other side. Yes, The Blaze could gain some positive publicity by letting Tomi have control of her Facebook page back, but that’s likely more than offset by the loss of audience that solution entails. It’s also unclear what the results of Tomi’s lawsuit will be, as based upon my searches there doesn’t seem to be much case law with regard to employer/employee ownership of social media accounts. What I found interesting is that she is suing The Blaze for wrongful termination and is asking for return of access and control of her Facebook account, but it doesn’t appear as if she’s challenging that The Blaze rightfully owns her Facebook account. Even if she wins the wrongful termination suit, it’s unclear whether she will get her Facebook account back or not. It will certainly be an interesting case to watch.
What are the implications for the future of social media accounts with regard to employers and employees? While this type of case may not affect the vast majority of people on social media, I think there will be greater awareness by social media influencers with substantial followings who decide to join companies. Contracts will likely be written to properly reflect the interests of both sides during employment and after it has ended. There has always been legal battles over companies owning the intellectual property created by employees, but it’s easy to see how it can become problematic when companies start “owning” an employee’s personal brand or likeness. I’m not sure exactly how Tomi’s lawsuit will end up playing out, but I think there are important lessons to learn from Tomi’s fight with The Blaze and the way that it ends up playing out should have ripple effects in the way we think about “ownership” of our social media accounts in the digital age.