• BURN MEDIA
    • Motorburn
      Because cars are gadgets
    • Gearburn
      Incisive reviews for the gadget obsessed
    • Ventureburn
      Startup news for emerging markets
    • Jobsburn
      Digital industry jobs for the anti 9 to 5!

SA’s first social media lawyer on sex tapes, penis transplants and Pistorius

She’s been described as the Dr. Eve of social media, ready with that much-needed reality check just before we send out a message into the world that one day will come back to haunt us. Invited to SXSW to talk about South Africa’s first trial by social media, Memeburn had the opportunity to sit down with Emma Sadleir at one of Austin’s most opulent hotels, the Driskill.

Sadleir shot to fame as host on DStv’s Oscar Pistorius channel fielding Twitter questions about the country’s first televised trial. Viewers could send questions using the #AskEmma hashtag which would often trend while her nightly show was airing. Used to watching Ally McBeal and Law & Order, viewers tried to understand why a jury was missing and why lawyers didn’t interrupt each other shouting “objection your honour”.

Sadleir’s defining moment of 2014

“You forget that the majority of South Africans who were watching the trial have never been in a courtroom before,” Sadleir says. “Their frame of reference is influenced by TV shows and movies from America. So the channel did an incredible job in educating people about our legal system.”

Many tweets containing #AskEmma were however far more interested in Sadleir than Oscar’s future as she was often asked out on dates. The TV show became a defining moment in her life as what was initially meant to be a 3 week gig, turned into an full-time on-air job as Oscar’s trial dragged on for months.

George [Mazarakis] asked me to be part of the channel. I thought I’d just help with the background, check their tweets before it was sent out. But when the channel started they asked me to join as a presenter. It was an incredible experience to learn how to read an autocue and interview someone while 25 people are shouting in my ear.”

From Wits to meeting Assange

Sadleir studied law at Wits and as admitted attorney at Webber Wentzel joined the company’s media law department where she gained first-hand experience with media related lawsuits. During that time a scholarship allowed her to continue her studies at the London School of Economics. “It was just right down my alley to be in the absolute hot-pot of everything happening in the world.” Meeting Julian Assange while at LSE (long before rape charges were brought against him) was one such hot-pot moment, an experience she sums up as “creepy”.

Returning to South Africa, Sadleir realised the need to educate others about the dangers and pitfalls of social media. “Content is content, whether that’s on a podcast or a Whatsapp message, it’s all the same. As soon as content has been seen by one other person, it’s treated in the law as if it appeared on the front page of a newspaper.”

Consequently Sadleir left Webber Wentzel to become South Africa’s first independent social media lawyer, although “social media law” isn’t really a thing. “There’s no social media laws. Media laws in this country are old, the copyright law for example dates back to the 1970s. So it’s just having an awareness of them and trying to adapt these laws to social media.”

South Africans ‘failing children’ in social media education

Sadleir has advised many companies, celebrities and families trying to either take preventative measures against a social media faux pas, or getting them out of an embarrassing situation.

“People are desperate for guidelines. I mean think of for example what happened to Justine Sacco. She only had 170 followers, I mean there’s more than 170 people in this room right now. Yet she didn’t realise what she was getting herself into.”

Read more: Online news outlets, the Twitter mob and Justine Sacco: who’s the real villain?

As part of educating the nation, Sadleir visits at least one school a day where she gives talks on the hard realities of sharing too much on social media, dating apps and messaging services.

“I consider my work to be the modern-day equivalent of the drug talk. I remember listening to a heroin addict who came to talk at my school when I was 12. He told us how he thought he was an orange and tried to peel himself. It completely freaked me out. Because of that I’ve never touched drugs.”

Although many of her clients are involved in lawsuits over revenge porn or slightly more hardcore cases that you’d think would entail her spending less time with kids, Sadleir says the way young people use social media is just as alarming. Just think about the recent court case in Bloemfontein about the “sexting teen” or the Penn State frat’s secret naked Facebook photos.

“Without even taking a break, kids would post on Facebook that their teacher is a dick. That’s just what they do and they don’t know it has implications. I feel like we’re failing children and that’s why I’m focusing on them. Teachers and parents have no idea what’s going on in this space. And parents think this is a school problem, that schools are meant to educate kids about social media. But it’s as much an adult problem as it is for schools.”

Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex

Being “under siege” for talking to as many kids as she possibly can, Sadleir decided to write a book that would help more people desperate for guidelines. Collaborating with friend and fellow LSE law graduate Tamsyn de Beer, the two published “Don’t Film Yourself Having Sex (and Other Advice for the Age of Social Media)” (Penguin) last year, an incredible step-by-step guide for kids, parents, schools and employers who far too often find themselves in questionable situations involving social media use.

The book is written in a way that makes it accessible to anyone aged 8 to 80 but, says Sadleir, “if every 12-year-old in the country would read it, I’d feel very happy about it”.

Mandela = Pistorius = penis transplant

Back at SXSW, Sadleir joined Amanda Sevasti to talk about all things social media pertaining to the Oscar Pistorius trial, a trial that just as in South Africa gripped Americans.

Perhaps the greatest benefit that came out of the trial in retrospect, says Amanda, is the clear indication that South Africans have now developed a better intake of news. No longer stuck to only reading newspapers, Amanda says she was proud to see her mother join Twitter with the sole intention of following Barry Bateman’s tweets. “He’s the only person on her Twitter timeline.”

Read more: Barry Bateman and Oscar Pistorius: inside the Twitter explosion

Along Nelson Mandela and apartheid, the Pistorius trial is now one of South Africa’s historical identifiers, Sadleir told the Austin audience that Friday, “oh and a successful penis transplant,” she says referring to the big news out of Stellenbosch that morning. “Although we probably still have to find out how successful it was.”

Emma Sadleir’s book is available on Kindle and in paperback from Exclusive Books.

Author | André-Pierre du Plessis

André-Pierre du Plessis
From a very young age, AP du Plessis has had an unhealthy obsession with Lego. Trumping Mattel to become the world's top toy maker, Lego has made it particularly difficult for him to quit bricks. AP worked at Bloomberg, Media24 and eNCA before joining Memeburn as managing editor. More