It’s a Media Jungle out there | Digital Estate Planning Beware

 

Without rules and guidelines in place, social media is a rogue platform with nuclear capability.”Mark A. Cohen, Lawyer & Prominent Legal Innovation Writer

 

According to a 2016 report by PEW Research Center, 62% of American adults get their news from social media channels. And, according to Techcrunch a similar study done in 2014 indicated that 42% of Americans got their news from social media – that’s a growth of a whopping 20% in just two years, and it will continue to grow. Yet, social media and many online publishers are totally devoid of any indication of what is fact and what is fiction. Often time, misinformation is presented as fact and can then circulate through networks like a flu in the New York public transit system. CNN’s recent blunder with the incorrect statement about Trump’s campaign funds from Russia, is a stark example of this very issue.

Sadly, the digital estate planning space is rampant with its own examples. All of these major media channels have made recommendations that could lead a user or their loved ones into legal turmoil:

 

 

Unfortunately, this number continues to grow, as more and more media channels try to meet the demand for information surrounding the planning for the “Digital Afterlife”. Journalists, writers, and even attorneys themselves are trying to offer knowledge in this new area, when often time a lot of the rules and regulations are still in formation. It’s the duty of the industry to ensure facts are checked before presented in order to build a credible knowledge base in this domain.

 

Power of the Media Gone Wrong

 

Sometimes the media can spread socially damaging information or even completely incorrect information. What’s come to be known as the “OZ effect” is a strong indication of the influence a perceived leader in communications can have. Dr. Oz is notorious for backing the claimed benefits of products that haven’t necessarily been approved by the FDA or may not have any real evidence at all supporting their use. Markets have surged after these claims, leading floods of people to purchase these products based on misguided information from Dr. Oz.

The OZ effect can happen any time misinformation is circulated as fact to broad audiences by prominent media sources. This is certainly the case in the spread of incorrect information surrounding the topics of how to manage and plan for your digital afterlife. We’re surprised here at DCS at the prevalence of the flawed advice surrounding digital estate planning in the media. Just recently an estate professional posted recommendations in a LinkedIn group advising some of the following misinformed points. These include a few of the most commonly spread tips that could lead to significant problems and risk, rendering the estate with inviable actions – such as:

 

  • Relying on the use of stored passwords to all of your online accounts.
  • Sharing the passwords and access to all of your accounts with friends, family and/or the estate.
  • Permitting access to someone who hasn’t been explicitly identified in the directives.
  • Deleting or otherwise altering accounts without the explicit direction of the account holder, which could lead to the loss of sentimentally and financially high valued assets.

 

It can’t be proven beyond a doubt that one piece of misinformation or another has lead someone to perform a given action. But it can be argued that the collective push of wrong information, or even just the lack of information altogether, can lead to people doing things they might not have if they had known better. In the case of digital asset planning there is currently legislation in the United States that prevents accessing some types of digital accounts unless explicit directives are outlined in the deceased’s will to that effect. If a loved one or fiduciary were to access accounts content without clear directives they could risk legal reprehension.

 

How Information Moves Through the Media with Damaging Implications

 

Imagine in the illustration below that the middle person is a prominent media source or well known attorney in the digital asset management and estate planning space. The several connected people are those who read the information shared by this media or attorney, and then go on to share it with their networks. It doesn’t take long then to see how easy it is for one source of wrong information to spread like wildfire.  Eventually someone could take action and get in legal trouble for unknowingly breaking the law based on the misinformation initiated by that first source.

The largest tragedy of this phenomenon is that big media sources are reliant on industry professionals to get the correct information. Depending on how central an individual is to a network, one piece of content could spread to 100’s, even thousands or more people in just seconds. We see this first hand every time a celebrity tweets some poorly thought out comment on this or that world event. For example, when Seattle Mariners Steve Clevenger tweeted a plethora of racist comments following a case of police brutality last year.

When this information is traced back to its source, it can have damaging repercussions. Individuals that are hoping to manage their digital legacy, are often going to turn to the media for information. When a practice or a particular professional is the source of that information, it reflects badly on that source and could lead the source to liabilities otherwise avoidable.

 

It’s a Social Duty to Ensure the Correct Information Travels

 

The Digital Afterlife is a topic that affects everyone and is of growing concern, and as such we are seeing more and more discussion about it on prominent sources, like CBS News, CNET and the New York Times.  As a result, there is a growing demand for the industry to ensure the correct information is getting where it needs to. One piece of bad advice can lead an attorney’s client toward legal reprehension of for their loved ones or a complete neglect of their intended directives altogether. It is for these reasons that there is a duty to ensure the correct information is getting represented in the media.

Just as easily as wrong information travels, the correct information can travel too. Through professionals who work in and are informing the media, there must be and ensurance that the correct information is being provided to the various readerships. If the information is not reliably available through research, then it’s important that the media and those producing content on these topics, turn to leaders in the industry to gauge second opinions. It is likewise the duty then of those leaders to ensure they are providing the media with the correct information.

Though the power of the media is often personified as if it is its own being spewing out nonsense ad nauseum, that’s not always the case. Media informants are everywhere, from overheard conversations to articles and tweets by the second. The duty of others to protect the rights of those that can’t protect their own, goes well beyond the protection of gullible internet users, and includes the protection of rights even well beyond the grave. If we start by ensuring the media is representing correct information about the management of digital estates, and anything else for that matter, we’re already steps closer to having a prominent share in the proliferation and fulfillment of this social duty.

 

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Directive Communications Systems (DCS) provides resources and tools to estate planning professionals and individuals to manage digital assets; helping to keep the growth and dispersion of these assets under wraps. DCS helps you work through the estate planning process keeping you in line with the digital era.

 

Learn more about better managing digital assets.

 

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