Do you own your Facebook page? Maybe not.

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 49375409-cachedpolitics 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:

20161022_woc855_2If 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 Decorative Scales of Justice in the CourtroomFacebook 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.

 

11 comments

  1. A very relative post Danny, especially after hearing the guest speaker we had from BU last week lecture on the legal issues surrounding social media. Indeed the lines are blurry for this case…while The Blaze does legally own the Facebook page since from an employment-law standpoint, it was written in the contract (thus it’s enforceable), something just seems off about having someone else control your image for you even after termination/you’ve left the company. In regards to online identity, what will that mean for us in the future? Will we be forced to create 2 types of FB accounts – one that allows employers to have control and one that is for our personal use, doesn’t that seem a bit excessive? And on top of that, even if we create a profile just for the purpose of our employment, why should the company still have the right to maintain it after we leave?

  2. I haven’t heard of this case but it was such a great read, thanks! I have trouble wrapping my head around the fact that her Facebook page, named after her and essentially representing HER public profile can or is actually owned by someone else who is posting under her name on her behalf, yet it still can look like her personal opinion when it is not the case. I always thought that verified profiles were given to public personas to verify that it is indeed THAT person posting and sharing content on that page, otherwise, it could be classified as just another Facebook fan page. I think the primary reason people connect to her or any other pesonality on SM is to have direct access to the content that person shares, and if we can’t be sure that the content is actually coming from that person, then what is the point of following them at all? I understand that some celebrities might have their “team” posting for them, but it is more of a personal choice, and the content is still personal, which is clearly not the case here…

  3. Wow, what a great blog post. I was unaware that such an incident could even occur. I never thought her profile and Facebook page could be owned by somebody else. It seems crazy that somebody else could own your profile… It doesn’t apply to many of us Facebook users, but for verified profiles, this will certainly be an issue in the future. The legal issues surrounding social media seems to be a tricky topic. As social media evolves at such a fast rate, it must be hard to update and apply relative laws that help monitor social media dynamics. The future of online identify will most likely change, and it will be interesting to see the outcomes of such issues.

  4. Interesting post Danny. I would imagine if the employment contract stated that The Blaze would own the account, it will be different to argue against this. It sounds like Lahren’s case will depend on whether she will be able to show that this is against Facebook’s rules, but it sounds like its a case that could set a precedent. I wonder if the account existed before Lahren joined The Blaze or if it was created specifically with the The Blaze in mind.

  5. Really neat post! The question of ownership in regards to online platforms made me think about this article that I saw in the summer: http://www.newyorker.com/culture/culture-desk/why-did-google-erase-dennis-coopers-beloved-literary-blog. Long story short, Google deleted a popular literary on its Blogger platform, including all the related data, and didn’t even provide any explanation why. This of course attracted a lot of media attention, so Google eventually reinstated the blog. Similarly, I believe that public opinion will have a great degree of important in the Tomi Lahren case. She built up a devoted fanbase, and they probably care more about her than the relatively faceless The Blaze. Even if she doesn’t get her page back, I believe that she has enough fans that she could relaunch on Facebook and her work her way back up independently (this would definitely impact her profits, but is still very possible). Very interesting case for sure, thanks for sharing it!

  6. The question I have for the Blaze is what do they gain from Tomi’s social media accounts post-suspension/termination? I understand that the Company fears losing the social capital that she has developed, but wasn’t it essentially lost when they decided to suspend her in the first place? I assume it’s illegal for them to completely impersonate Tomi and continue to operate her accounts – so unless they re-hire her, they’ve largely lost their ability to connect with her audience. So, is this then just a display of power by The Blaze? Tomi’s approach of suing The Blaze for wrongful termination and is asking for access/control over her Facebook that you pointed out is definitely an interesting strategy – I’d be curious to hear the legal reasoning behind that. It will be interesting to see how this case plays out and the president it sets for ownership of social media accounts moving forward.

  7. Really interesting post….I didn’t expect it to be about a specific case at first especially since I didn’t hear it around like some of the others. I agree with Duffy, what does the company have to gain from withholding this? I think that your points are very clear that because she holds a good amount of followers more than the Blaze actually does, it risks losing their own viewership on social. Not sure this is wise, but it puts into perspective of how in control both she is and the company is on their viewership and how one person could technically carry the brand on their back so to speak. The fact that the Blaze is going against what they represent is interesting as well and doubtful of how strong they wish to uphold their core values as a company.

  8. Great post Danny! I also did not realize the implications of a company actually the rights to someone’s social media “persona”. I know these are obviously different situations, but I wonder if the same situation applied to Stephen Colbert’s “Stephen Colbert” persona when he moved from Comedy Central to CBS. Obviously, he is “Stephen Colbert”, but Comedy Central developed that persona for his hit show. This one is trickier because Tomi’s FB persona is simply herself. I’m a bit perplexed for what the value of Tomi’s FB is for the Blaze as I’d think those FB fans would simply leave once the Blaze realized that Tomi’s FB page no longer contained Tomi. Very interesting article, I”m glad you brought it up!

  9. Wow this is a crazy story, which I was unaware of. Thanks for sharing. I had no idea of how much money could be realized through these influencers and companies. Reading through the article it seems as though it will be tough for Lahren to claim it back if it’s contractural. Editorial works with advertising seem to be complicated – Nugaard mentioned in the article Matt Bellassai who had a similar issue, and so it will be interesting to see how this case is settled.

  10. Nice job Danny. I had no idea that influencers could make that much off of social media. Platforms such as Facebook and Instagram have completely transformed the advertising industry. I heard about the Tomi Lahren story but did not realize how big of an impact it had or the lawsuit that ensued following her termination. I had no idea that Facebook pages could be owned by companies and not the individual person that they feature. It makes sense why it would become a legal issue when there are hundreds of thousands of dollars at stake. This will become an increasingly big problem in the coming years as more money flows into social media and more and more people join these networks that impact our lives so much.

  11. This would have been a good question for Professor Chang, who I may tweet about this. My guess is that while the Blaze may own her Facebook page and can keep her from using it, I doubt that they can continue to market as her. They could convert the page to a more generic Blaze site (or convert for her inevitable replacement).

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