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Twitter shaming, the social mob, and why enterprises should care

Jon Reed Profile picture for user jreed July 21, 2015
A provocative new Ted Talk on Twitter shaming and the social mob has serious implications for enterprises - and their social media policies.

Those of us who miss the early days of Twitter are never able to adequately explain what's been lost. But in a recent TED Talk (How One Tweet Can Ruin Your Life), Jon Ronson does about as good a job as I've seen.

But Ronson isn't on the nostalgia circuit - his concern is what Twitter has become, and the damage done to individuals by the social mob. As I listened to the seventeen minute talk - which I recommend in its entirety - I also saw implications for enterprises, and social media guidelines that are likely inadequate for an employee who gets caught up in such a firestorm.

Rondon begins with a tribute to the good-old-Twitter-days:

In the early days of Twitter, it was like a place of radical de-shaming. People would admit shameful secrets about themselves and other people would say, "Oh my God, I'm exactly the same." Voiceless people realized they had a voice and it was powerful and eloquent.

But we soon realized there were activist implications to such sentiments:

If a newspaper writes some racist or homophobic column, we realized we could do something about it. We could get them. We could hit them with a weapon that we understood, but they didn't, a social shaming. Advertisers would withdraw their advertising. When powerful people misuse their privilege, we were going to get them.

Things got pretty ugly pretty quickly. Amidst the wonderful aspects of connecting with global colleagues that my enterprise peers discovered, an uglier side emerged. Twitter has proven to be an ideal platform for tarring-and-feathering a person's reputation based on missteps real or imagined.

For his book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, Ronson met many of the tar-and-feather recipients. His stories of how they've struggled to move on with their lives are disconcerting - especially for those of us who can recall posting - or almost posting - similar one liners.

Ronson's Ted Talk centers on the controversial case of (then) 30 year old Justine Sacco, who posted an infamous tweet prior to the final leg of her flights from New York to South Africa. Despite only having 170 followers, Sacco got off the plane in South Africa to find out she was the number one trending topic on Twitter, and not in a good way.

Sacco maintains the joke (which you can read on the link above) was satire. I'm not so sure, but I do know that: 1. in general we struggle with potent satire thanks to political correctness run amok, and 2. controversial jokes fare better in context than nakedly on Twitter (though there is always the risk that someone will take your "joke" from another context and do equal sound bite damage).

I don't think Sacco's joke worked as satire, and I'd have advised against Twitter as the medium, but by the time the mob was done with Sacco, she was unemployed and devastated. Whether that punishment was proportional to the offense is debatable, but here's what not: the mob that ganged up on Sacco regarding her AIDS joke actually did nothing for AIDS in Africa. The mob got satisfaction in the most hypocritical manner possible.

As Ronson says,

We wanted to show that we cared about people dying of AIDS in Africa. Our desire to be seen to be compassionate is what led us to commit this profoundly uncompassionate act. As Meghan O'Gieblyn wrote in the Boston Review, this isn't social justice. It's a cathartic alternative.

My take

Unfortunately, Ronson doesn't have much good to say about where we go from here. I see the situation as both worse and better than he does:

  • Twitter's discontents have as much to do with its desperate search for commercial viability as anything.
  • These "social mob" problems go far beyond Twitter. See: Reddit's overnight trial and conviction of the wrong Boston bomber suspect.
  • Social platforms are not without activist merit. Twitter has amplified "citizen video" in situations like Ferguson; Facebook has given protesters in oppressive regimes a communications outlet.

Still, the sum of Ronson's words are unsettling to those who envisioned social platforms as a way to advance causes and improve our careers, not to throw (or be thrown) under the social bus.

So what should individuals do? I bet you're expecting me to say something like, "be careful what you say." Nope. I'll take a different tack:

  • Stand up to the herd.
  • Speak your mind, regardless of the popularity of your position.
  • Defend others who do so.
  • Fight the mob rush to judgement.
  • Always dig for context.

But: "think before you send" still applies. And why you're sending. More often than not, the tweets that get people into trouble seem less like misunderstood jokes and more like failed grasps at attention (and yes, I include my own worst tweets in the latter). So for those who use social platforms in our enterprise careers, I advise:

  • Earn attention not by saying controversial crap for no reason, but by getting really good at something and sharing that information generously. Don't be afraid to show conviction and crack jokes, but be aware that the consequences for controversial viewpoints can be disproportionate. Accept that consequence when you feel strongly about the issue at hand, avoid it when you don't. As in life, choose battles wisely.
  • Avoid the temptation to bury individuals with the rest of the mob, and always remember that the satisfaction of a small result (e.g. someone losing their job, a company issues a boilerplate apology) does nothing for the causes we believe in. Changing the world requires far more sacrifice on our part than a retweet or a "me too" petition.

What should enterprises do?

Enterprises should revisit their social media guidelines with the potential for mob retaliation on individuals in mind, and provide guidance on what individuals should do in such situations before they tweet, and before they escalate. Example: educate your employees that before they get into a debate with a seemingly rogue individual, that rogue individual might have horsepower behind them (example: Gamergate folks who can rally their own mob).

Enterprises should not - as you may be expecting me to say - clamp down on employees speaking freely. Companies should support free expression of viewpoints by their employees online, but they should also encourage research before expressing opinions on controversial topics. If employees are known to speak on controversial topics (e.g. politics and religion), discussions should be had internally with that employee to make sure that individual is clear on what the employer's parameters are, and the language to be used ("opinions are solely mine and not that of my employer.").

Social media training sessions should include plenty of real-world examples like the ones I've cited here, to educate as to the permanence of all expression, as well as its potential fallout.  Employers should strongly encourage employees to use their real names and identities on social platforms wherever possible, especially on Twitter. Real names invoke greater accountability. (Exceptions to real name guidelines will be needed however. Example: women who are dealing with online stalkers).

If an individual becomes a target of the social mob, employers should hold off on firing that individual as a knee jerk response. Far better to suspend the individual for a week pending a further investigation. In most cases, the mob will move on to a new faux outrage, and the employer can take a dispassionate look at the employee's history, the motivation behind the sentiment, etc. If the employer determines the individual did nothing wrong, then that employee should be publicly defended.

By factoring in these realities, we can come up with better policies. Putting people on social lockdown in fear of the mob is an ill-advised move that will result in a stifled corporate culture - and a less appealing workplace. Plus: giving in to a herd of idiots just feels bad.

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