Social media accounts, including Facebook, have become an almost universal way for people to stay connected with friends and family, to share updates about their lives, and to catch up on news and events.
According to a 2019 Pew Research Center survey, around seven in 10 – or 69% – of adults in the United States use Facebook. Platforms like Facebook can help foster a sense of community and social engagement – especially during stay-at-home orders due to the COVID-19 pandemic. But people also have a tendency to overshare, or to share an inaccurate version of themselves or their lives – only putting their BEST foot forward online.
If you are considering separation or divorce, it is important to understand what your obligations are regarding any online content you have generated on Facebook, and how those obligations might impact you during the divorce process. Your online footprint (as well as your spouse’s) can be a helpful tool in your divorce case, or it could be used against you. Either way, you will want to have developed a clear strategy with your attorney regarding your Facebook content.
Here are a few simple rules that I would want any potential client to keep in mind:
Rule #1: Do not hit delete. Your Facebook page, and any content, posts, messages, or anything else you have posted or shared on Facebook, may all be relevant and discoverable information during your divorce process (meaning, the other side may request this information through discovery and if so, you have an obligation to provide it). In Maryland, a party to litigation has an obligation to preserve relevant evidence, not just once litigation has begun but as soon as it seems that litigation might occur. To steer clear of possible credibility issues later in your case – or worse, sanctions for destroying relevant evidence – the best practice is to keep all social media information in tact from the moment you begin considering divorce. This does not mean you have to continue posting or creating new content, but if you do so, then you should save that as well.
Rule #2: Never put anything in writing you wouldn’t want a Judge to read one day. This includes any posting on social media (whether made “publicly” or “privately”), as well as “private” or “direct” communications with third parties through the messenger features of any social media platform.
Rule #3: Preserve everything that may be relevant to your divorce. Although this seems synonymous with the rule about not affirmatively deleting anything, the obligation to preserve relevant evidence actually extends beyond what you yourself control. You also have an obligation to let employers, friends, family members, business partners, or anyone else who may have documents in their possession that are relevant to your divorce that they have an obligation to preserve and maintain those documents. Similar to your own obligation, this also includes online data, such as social media posts and messages.
Rule #4: Talk to your attorney before you take any action. The obligation to preserve relevant information does not necessarily mean that such information must remain “public” on your Facebook page. Under certain circumstances, you may even be able to delete information off of Facebook, or even your entire account, so long as you maintain copies of everything that was once available.
Earlier this year, Facebook announced a new feature that enables “bulk” deleting of posts from a user’s page, making it easier than ever for people to run afoul of preservation requirements. It is always advisable to discuss with your attorney before you take any action, particularly since the sanctions for destroying relevant evidence can be severe. Working closely with your attorney to understand what your obligations are while also developing a strategy to address your concerns, will put you in the best position to be successful in your divorce matter.