News & Media

Legal: HOA Message Board a Hotbed for Unfounded Rumors

Condo residents frequent social media sites for social updates and recommendations, but false news can catch fire without HOA input. How should this be handled?

STUART, Fla. – Question: Many of our residents subscribe to social media websites focused on community associations that are not actually controlled by the associations themselves. Most of the posters are neighborly and use the site for vendor recommendations and social activities, but our neighborhood site has become a message board to spread rumors and mistruths about the board and the community. Do you have any recommendations on how to address this? – T.D., Naples

Answer: Social media can be a dangerous place. I am reminded of an episode of a popular television show “The West Wing” where Josh, one of the main characters, discovers there is a website devoted to him and his work at the White House. His elation turns sour after he is criticized on the website and he simply can’t resist the urge to defend himself on the social media platform. As you can expect, this was a mistake and the users quickly mobilized. Fueled by a gang mentality that often emerges on social media platforms, Josh found himself in a no-win situation.

The simple fact is that most people on social media act very differently behind a computer at the end of the day than they act in a professional office, or in a social setting with their peers or friends. There is a lot of good social science on this topic.

In my own professional experience, I have been asked dozens of times to review these posts and, not surprisingly, almost none of these posts have been factually or legally accurate. Many of these posters, often justifiably or unjustifiably angry, consistently spread rumors and mistruths about the Board’s actions, intentions, and motives. More importantly, many other residents accept these posts as truth.

I generally remind the Directors of Josh’s experience on “The West Wing” and recommend they not engage in the social media debate … if they can help it.

I completely understand the urge to defend yourself from personal attacks and attacks against the Board’s actions and intentions, but these campaigns rarely succeed whether you challenge the online post or respond with a good-natured and informative response. Again, people are generally different behind a computer compared to other settings.

If a response is necessary (and it is not always necessary), I recommend my clients politely and broadly disagree with the assertions, and then invite them and any other owners on the platform to a Board meeting. Your response can acknowledge that the Board will address their concerns, answer questions if the information is available, and these users can be given a voice at an official meeting.

For the Board, you have a better opportunity to prepare and control the discussion at the meeting, and the environment itself may foster a productive conversation for both sides. Admittedly, this approach can result in a long and combative Board meeting depending on meeting management, issues, and personalities, but it may still be better than round after round of social media posts. Additionally, if the owners do not attend the Board meeting, they can’t argue that you did not give them an official platform to express their concerns.

Steven J. Adamczyk Esq., is a shareholder of the law firm Goede, Adamczyk, DeBoest & Cross, PLLC. The information provided herein is for informational purposes only and should not be construed as legal advice. The publication of this article does not create an attorney-client relationship between the reader and Goede, Adamczyk, DeBoest & Cross, or any of our attorneys. Readers should not act or refrain from acting based upon the information contained in this article without first contacting an attorney, if you have questions about any of the issues raised herein. The hiring of an attorney is a decision that should not be based solely on advertisements or this column.

© 2019 Journal Media Group, Steven J. Adamczyk