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Lindsay Bell

1984 Redux: The Social Media Thought Police

By: Lindsay Bell | October 31, 2012 | 
69

Today’s guest post is by Lindsay Bell.

If we could take two of the modern world’s most innovative and forward-thinking minds, stuff them in a blender, and press puree, you wouldn’t only have a bit of a mess on your hands, you would have a fairly good representation of where we sit in today’s insane digital world.

George Orwell got the ball rolling with his satirical yet frighteningly prescient 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four.

Here’s a refresher:

“The Oceanian province of Airstrip One is a world of perpetual war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public mind control, dictated by a political system euphemistically names English Socialism, under the control of a privileged Inner Party elite that persecutes all individualism and independent thinking as thought crimes.” Hmmmmmmm.

Marshall McLuhan brought up the rear – a mere decade or so later – with the idea that our advancing technologies would have a profound affect on our lives, culture, and the way we view our history.

His oft quoted – and oft misunderstood – “the medium is the message” explored how the content of the message itself had less power than the media through which it was conveyed, and how each media had its own biases and language: Oral recitation, TV, radio, stage, comic books, etc.. Social media must have the man spinning in his grave.

So, take a snippet from both of these historical figures:

Orwell – “….under the control of a privileged Inner Party elite that persecutes all individualism and independent thinking as thought crimes.”

McLuhan – “…. the means of communication itself creates an affect, regardless of what is being said.”

Blender. Puree. BOOM! Double plus bad.

I started thinking about this because of two recent related news stories. In one an unhappy employee was fired for tweeting that his work environment was “toxic” and that his co-workers were “morons,” “dysfunctional,” “psychotic,” and “schizophrenic”.  Them’s what you call fightin’ words.

What’s interesting about this case is not the dismissal, which is becoming more and more commonplace as companies get used to the role social media plays in the day to day work environment. What’s interesting is he was denied unemployment benefits. His company had a clearly defined policy in place about respecting colleagues, and he admitted he was aware of said policy. The court ruled he was not entitled to benefits because he was in violation “…of a reasonable work rule.”

Fair enough. Bit of a slam dunk there.

Big Brother

But how about this next case: A Canadian retail salesman was fired recently for posting on a random Facebook page, on his own time, and using his own private social accounts. He was simply being a douchey troll, on a public page, and said something (admittedly horrible) to – as he said in his defense – try and stir the pot and get people talking. Free speech and all that.

He said nothing about his job, and made no reference to his place of employer. “Why was he fired?” you ask?

Because – and this is where the McLuhan/Orwell mashup comes into play – another member of the same Facebook page who lived half a country away took it upon herself to punish the troll. She was enraged by what he posted, went to his Facebook page, saw where he worked, and alerted his employer. Who promptly fired him. Big Brother indeed.

Medium Meets Message

In this case the medium most definitely was the message. This was a Facebook page drawing attention to the perils of online bullying, and sure, the guy was being an idiot and said a terrible thing. But what really bothered me about this story was the vigilanteism that subsequently occurred.

The “thought police” set about ruining this guy’s life – and if you think I’m exaggerating, I’m not. Online bullying was a highly sensitive news topic at that time, the story went nationwide – and many employment professionals were commenting that this man would be carrying the stain of what he did with him for quite awhile. And I don’t have to point out that jobs are hardly a dime a dozen these days.

This story has stayed with me for weeks now. I can’t shake it. I am a jumble of disgust at what he said on that Facebook page, mixed with equal parts outrage that he was effectively ‘tattled on’ – that a total stranger decided to mess with his life because they didn’t like what they read on a Facebook wall – and now he’s wearing the scarlet letter of social media shame AND he’s unemployed.

Idiots Are People Too

Many will say ‘he should have known better,’ but if you’re not immersed in it day in/day out as most of us are, it’s VERY easy to comment first and think later. I don’t think he deserved to lose his job – the world’s full of idiotic, loud-mouthed tools who are still valuable employees – and I wonder how the vigilante can sleep at night. I also hope that, in this case, the guy qualifies for unemployment insurance benefits, and someone cuts him a break soon and hires him.

I’m quite sure he’s learned a valuable lesson.

If not, I’ll leave him with a bit of Orwellian advice: Watch out for the telescreens, they have hidden microphones and cameras and permit the Thought Police to spy upon – and identify – anyone who might endanger the Party’s régime!

Lindsay Bell is the content director at Arment Dietrich, and works in Toronto. A former TV producer, she’s a strong advocate of three minutes or less of video content. She has a cool kid, a patient husband, and two annoying cats. 

About Lindsay Bell


Lindsay Bell is the content director at Arment Dietrich, and works in Toronto. A former TV producer, she’s a strong advocate of three minutes or less of video content. She has a cool kid, a patient husband, two annoying cats, and Hank Dawge, a Vizsla/Foxhound/moose hybrid. Ok, maybe not moose.

68 comments
Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

BTW there is a group in Venice Beach, Ca that meets once a month. Kind of nerdy intellectual geeks who each meeting try to decipher 2 pages from Finnegan's Wake. Media people. College Professors, Writers etc. The first hour is spent talking media and I learned of  McLuhan, this was before my career change into advertising/marketing. I only went to 2 meetings before I moved back east. They were on page 283. I did the math they had been meeting for 14 years.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

I used to go to the Facebook pages to give elected officials or groups I feel are bad em shit for being assholes and selfish and bigots and basically douchenozzles to the 12th degree. But I stopped. I sometimes say shit in my twitter feed but for the most part I stick to mundane or fun stuff. I do have a super secret twitter handle that I can talk politics with and I use as an example of why sponsored tweets are dangerous because they might show next to my tweets or one from the many 'Obama is a Fascist Nazi Commie Muslim terrorist who eats your children and assaults your wife and mother' hashtags (shocking number of people tweet this shit with no Alias!)

 

It is also why I blogged that Klout doesn't know us. Because most of us are not who were are in real life on social networks. We tend to be on best behavior. We tend not to say things that we do in person or in private. And that is why it is so dangerous for Brands to trust these persona's for data mining.

 

Social is no different than real life. Until you know someone...you really don't know the,. But who does know us? Google. Visa. our Bank. Our phone company. Our internet provider. Bceause while @belllindsay is a sweet kind cat lover here..... @ginidietrich doesn't know about all the anti-dog and dog hating websites she visits at night in the dark in her closet when the kid is asleep, and her hubby is at the bar.....plotting with her cats to over throw the dogs.

rdopping
rdopping

So here's a quandary for ya. What if you know something about a person who works with you that goes against the culture of your company? The something is publicly available on the internet and is potentially damaging to that person's reputation. Whattya do?

 

Let it go? Personally, I don't judge.

 

I don't know what is going on in someone's life and if I guess and hurt someone by it I am as much a troll as they me be perceived to be. There's criminal activity and then there are douchebags and a-holes. That guy was an a-hole for saying what he said. Fired? Well, whattya gonna do? Think before you speak? Hmmmmm.......

barrettrossie
barrettrossie

Lindsay, I can't help thinking that maybe the first "slam dunk" boss missed a chance to use the disgruntled employee to learn more about the problems, real or not, see if there were any lessons for the company, and make lemonade out of the lemon. 

 

Or maybe the employee was just a jerk. 

KenMueller
KenMueller

Good thoughts.Some day we'll have to have a chat about one of my mentors, who many consider to be the anti-McLuhan, Brian Winston. He had some very interesting things to say about some of those theories.

CjShaffer1
CjShaffer1

Last time I checked, Freedom of Speech does not apply to contractual relationships. The only protections that are (and should be) given in the United States pertain to government sensors. Hence the phrase "Congress (read any government or government entity, due to the incorporation doctrine) Shall make no law". Removing the ability for employers to protect themselves from harmful speech by employees is insanity. Additionally, this was not PRIVATE speech (even if his social media accounts are private, this is an example of broadcasted speech (it went beyond two people) which even further restricts his rights to say whatever he thinks.

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

The "thought police" didn't ruin that Canadian asshole's life. Let's look at his comment:

 

"The man was fired from Mr. Big & Tall after using a derogatory term and writing the 15-year-old deserved to die in a post on the Amanda Todd memorial Facebook page."

 

This was a 15 year old girl, driven to take her own life, by people that probably just thought they were "stirring the pot" and "having some fun".

 

Because, yeah, bullying and suicide is fun. 

 

The medium is not the message; it's the assholes (or not) behind the message, and those that have decided enough's enough from douchebag behaviour like the guy quoted in your piece.

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @HowieG Personally? I think that's insane. But I also subscribe to the "whatever floats your boat" school of thinking. So who am I to judge. And be honest Howie, they kicked you out, didn't they? 

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

 @HowieG  @belllindsay  @ginidietrich "Social is no different than real life." <--- ABSOLUTELY.  If that guy worked for you Lindsay, and you'd read that post, would you want to be around him daily?   

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @HowieG  @ginidietrich But on a more serious note, you've made some great points here about "who are we" - I mean, let's face it, even when we're at our jobs we're not always who we *really* are in our private lives. So, are we even *allowed* to be who we really are anymore....? Or do we have to keep everything outward facing whitewashed and sparkly clean....? 

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @HowieG  @ginidietrich Hey! I'll have you know that I'm *always* at the bar with my hubby!! Where we burn dogs in effigy while drinking moonshine. :)

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

 @rdopping I totally agree!  Would you want someone that nasty IN your company.  Would you EVER say something like that yourself?  If you're building a company culture that includes basic human decency, and you find out you've got someone like that on staff, I say 'ditch him.'I know not everyone is as addicted to Social as we are... and yes, we may have a head start on the rules, but the rules of common decency should be understood by everyone.   I understand your fears Lindsay, I really do... I'm a card carrying member of the ACLU, and I believe in the right to free speech, but I don't believe companies have to keep douche bags on their payrolls once they're found out.

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @rdopping I think we need to take the emotion out of this (poor girl, bullied, committed suicide, troll says something disgusting about that fact) - and just look at the facts. I take *huge* issue with the fact that another person went out of their way to get the guy fired. Talk about bullying behaviour! 

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

 @rdopping Here's another question - what if you stay quiet, it comes out, it erupts into a fire storm because the company did nothing, customers back away (especially from a smaller business), the company goes bust and has to close, ALL employees lose their jobs. Because of inaction and a "mistake".

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @barrettrossie Great point Barrett, and yes, wouldn't that have been the better outcome!!  My 'slam dunk' comment was more in relation to the legalities of that case, and the fact that this guy was using social to disparage his place of work and his colleagues. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @CjShaffer1 I wonder what the Canadian laws are around this. Still feels wrong to me - maybe what's SO wrong in this case is that a person actively tracked down his boss and ratted the guy out. She didn't know him, had no connection with him whatsoever, lived thousands of miles away from him, yet decided to "teach him a lesson" by getting him fired - that's a whole lotta wrong in my opinion. 

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @Danny Brown Danny, no where did I say that bullying and suicide are fun. What he said was terrible (as I said above), and what happened to that poor girl was tragic (but also, might I point out, the guy was NOT in any way a part of the bullying that she went through online).  What I have a problem with is that it IN NO WAY related to his work or the job he did day to day. He was troll, and a douchbag loser, but someone actively took it upon herself to get him fired nonetheless. What if he had said those words at a party and not on social media? And someone recorded him saying them? Should he still lose his job?

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @jasonkonopinski I was thinking about this guy as well while writing this piece Jason. In my opinion, where this differs is that he made quite a "life" for himself and garnered tons of publicity doing what he did on Reddit - and he was also posting, regularly - content that seriously pushed the boundaries of acceptable - and in some cases might even have been criminal - underage girls, etc., etc.. Interesting that Reddit's own members rose up in his defence crying "Freedom of speech!!" and "don't police the Interwebs!"

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @AmyMccTobin  @HowieG  @ginidietrich But that's the thing Amy, his employers *didn't* read that post - some one from three provinces away decided she was going to mess with his life and called his work and ratted him out! 

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @AmyMccTobin  @rdopping I think if he walked around the office spouting off like that, or worse, was commenting about something that happened to one of his colleagues, then absolutely. I just think that those of us who do social for a living are a bit smarter when it comes to what's "ok" and what isn't - we have the benefit of experience - but MOST of the joe public who mess around on social don't realize the potential ramifications. It was pretty harsh justice in my opinion. 

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

 @belllindsay  @rdopping OK, let's take the emotion out and look at it "logically". Guy brings company into disrepute; guy goes against company policy; company has right to decide how far against policy he went and make decision based on that; company decides they want nothing to do with someone like that. Simple as.

 

The problem is, you can't take emotion out of a case like this. It's not theft from an employer; it's not calling your boss an asshole. It's going online, to a public memorial, and defiling a young girl's memory by saying she deserved to die. How does a family look at that and say, "Well, hope the guy doesn't get fired, that'd be overreacting"?

 

I know if that was my son or daughter, I'd want nothing more than the lowlife to lose his job - that's nothing compared to the loss a parent would suffer every day of their lives, knowing they had to bury their child.

rdopping
rdopping

 @belllindsay Oh, you are so right. If we take the emotion out of the whole thing the guy would not have said anything, someone would not have been pissed off about what he said and an employer would not have reacted by firing him.

 

Emotion is part of life.

 

Could his employer treated this differently/ Maybe. they clearly think EVERYONE who buys mens clothes read this guys facebook page. Emotion? Well how about some plain old intelligence? None to be found in this issue from any party involved. 

CjShaffer1
CjShaffer1

 @belllindsay I love the ability to play devils advocate ;) Let's just forget that lady for a minute, because yes she is a bit crazy. If you as an employer have an employee broadcasting messages that are contrary to your beliefs, and find out about it (it doesn't matter how), what would you do?

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

 @belllindsay He's an employee of a company so he represents them. Even if he's not a front-facing person on social media for them, he represents their values and corporate policies. Their response confirms that:

 

Dave McGregor, the president of Grafton-Fraser, which owns Mr. Big & Tall, confirmed in an email the man no longer works for the company.

“Our company ethics are based on tolerance, respect and fair and honourable treatment of all individuals, internally, with our customers and the population as a whole,” he said.

“We have zero tolerance for the mistreatment of others no matter what form it takes.”

 

To rephrase your question: what if he said it somewhere away from social media? The problem is, he did, and that's out in the public for all to see. Again, brings his company into disrepute.

 

And while he may not have actively bullied before Amanda took her life, his words sure as hell won't help her parents move on, and they can inflame the bullies to pick on someone else, since that must mean they were in the right and Amanda wasn't.

criticalthought
criticalthought

I agree with Lindsay, losing one's livelihood for spouting hurtful comments is indeed Big Brother at its worst. The example used here, we might agree, is by all objective measures pretty awful, but the guy deserves to lose his job for it? How about a reprimand or a public shaming instead? Must job loss be the go-to punishment for stupidity? And where does this lead? Who gets to decide what is in good taste or is representative of some organization's "values?" If I like a book, philosopher, religion, or political party my employer thinks is not representative of its "values," is that also grounds for termination? That's where this road inevitably leads.

 

This is about freedom of speech. Broadly defined that means defending speech you yourself find entirely objectionable. It's also about personal autonomy. I work for a company for a set number of hours and that is all. No company should ever have control over my thoughts or actions outside of company time. I am not a company representative or spokesperson in perpetuity. To think otherwise, I would suggest, is to say you are no longer an individual, rather you are a wholly owned subsidiary no different than a piece of real estate (and a vastly underpaid one at that).

 

Finally, if social media is a forum of implied self-censorship as well as tacit, crowd-sourced censorship, what good is it? Is it strictly to be used for hustling brands and other stuff and junk? If I cannot use it to find out what people really think, it's not really social is it? It's just another barter system that asks for a moment of my time so that I might enjoy a wee spot of Newspeak. Like the writer warned, "slavery is freedom" and we seem to be ok with it.

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

 @belllindsay  @HowieG  @ginidietrich I understand that, but I also know this: When you're building a culture of integrity and kindness (<-- and I'll warn you, I'm on a kindness rant), you can't have mean, nasty people around you.  I wouldn't want him on my team after reading that. I totally get that you think the woman who reported him was some sort of inverse bully, and she was... BUT, he is still responsible for what comes out of his pen... or , keyboard.

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

 @belllindsay  @rdopping Every single time I speak to any group on Social I tell them this: "Once you enter the online world, there IS NO MORE PRIVACY."   And what he did was egregiousness.   It would be different to me if he was complaining about his workplace to his co-workers.... we all do that, and any boss who fired someone for that would be making a mistake.  

But I put myself in the boss's shoes:I own a small promotional goods company, and I have a rock star (woman)  who runs it for me.  If I found out that one of her employees said something incredibly misogynist anywhere, I'd want them gone.  I know how much the culture of even a tiny company means to its success, and I've also watched a great culture erode piece by piece because it wasn't valued.  You can't compromise one inch or it all starts to fall apart.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

 @belllindsay  @Danny Brown  @rdopping  @barrettrossie btw I am not a fan of wing nuts of any direction, hand, foot or ceiling. And I don't put people in those categories unless they are a crazy hater or war monger or lunatic.

 

Luckily most people aren't but somehow we tend to elect leaders who are and flock to media outlets that are. Not sure why that is.

Howie Goldfarb
Howie Goldfarb

 @Danny Brown  @belllindsay  @rdopping well this is tough. I had to interview PR people for a client. I googled each one. One guy turned out to be a right wing nut who worked with Andrew Breitbart (not sure if you puffin peeps know who he was) as a contributor to one of his websites. But he was the best candidate. I had to recommend him. He also didn't work out and was let go after 3 months.

 

So maybe these things work out in the end?

AmyMccTobin
AmyMccTobin

 @belllindsay  @rdopping  @Danny Brown I have a friend who was fired years ago because, when he went out with his boss and his wife, he said something inappropriate and she smacked him.  They all had too much to drink, but the next day she was having none of him being anywhere in his life.....  I felt sorry for him, but I also understood... don't get wrecked with your boss if you're not willing to handle the consequences.  I'm sick to death of trolls and bullies hiding behind what they deem the anonymity of Social.

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @rdopping I hear you Ralph. And you too @Danny BrownNothing's ever cut and dried. I guess this whole (quite new) concept of losing one's job because of online jerk'ery is something we all have to get used to. 

CjShaffer1
CjShaffer1

 @belllindsay So your only complaint is that it was someone random with a stick up her bum? What if it was a customer or another employee that discovered it?

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @CjShaffer1 But you can't forget the lady - because that's the whole point! But I agree, love playing Devil's Advocate as well. :) 

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @jasonkonopinski  @Danny Brown But Jason, and again, just for argument's sake here - if she's writing crude complaints that relate to her JOB - i.e. clients and colleagues - then fair  game I say! It's a bit greyer when you fire someone just for being a troll.

jasonkonopinski
jasonkonopinski

 @Danny Brown  @belllindsay I'm not sure how Canadian companies typically hire/fire, but most employer-employee relationships are considered 'at will'. When the Reddit troll Violentacrez was outed by Gawker, he was fired because his behavior, while not necessarily illegal, reflected poorly on the company. 

 

Free speech is never absolute, especially when it comes to employment. I raised this point in another comment here: I have an acquaintance who is actively seeking new employment as a CPA, but her Twitter feed is littered with open and crude complaints about co-workers and clients(!!!!!!!). She's going to be looking for a while, I suspect. 

 

I don't feel bad for people who lose their jobs because they say ignorant and malicious things online. Reap what you sow & all that. 

Latest blog post: A Simple Content Value Test

Danny Brown
Danny Brown

 @belllindsay Interestingly enough, the "my views alone" could be used against people even more. A company can simply say, "Yes - these are your views, and certainly not in keeping with our company and the values we wish our employees to hold." And make firing assholes like this guy easier.

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @Danny Brown And that's why I wrote this piece, to get good conversation flowing. :)  You make valid points, and I hope everyone will take a look at their social profiles where they say "My views and my views alone" yadda yadda. And I hope the tattle-tail'ers never come looking for me. ;) 

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

 @Danny Brown  @criticalthought Well, still definitely harder than it is in the U.S., where in most cases you don't actually need cause. Most businesses still build a case so they don't get sued for discrimination (sexual, racial, ethnic, ageist or otherwise), but it's a lot easier to fire someone without cause in the U.S. than pretty much anywhere else in the so-called First World.

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @criticalthought  @AmyVernon I've worked under the same conditions and it was horrible - half the company on strike, the rest coming to work, your friends and colleagues walking the street while you were MANDATED to enter the building. 

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

 @Danny Brown  @criticalthought I always find it fascinating how different these regulations are from country to country. However, in the U.K., it's more difficult to fire someone than in the U.S. or Canada, isn't it? I know in Italy, it's near impossible, though one could say that about a lot of things in Italy.

criticalthought
criticalthought

 @AmyVernon  An employer must have cause in Canada, which is why these codes of conduct have become a standard part of job contracts here (they have in-built, broad-based cause for dismissal as part of the language).

 

This brings up another issue, worker's rights and the marked decline in union membership that has made workers so vulnerable to the whims of corporations. As well as decimating the middle class...

 

For the record, I have never enjoyed the protection of a union. I have worked in a half unionized shop (creatives were non-union, technicians were union). The divide was remarkable and it made me very aware of the protections afforded by collective agreements.

AmyVernon
AmyVernon

 @criticalthought  @CjShaffer1 Thing is, many companies (in the U.S., at least) have as part of their contracts that they can fire without cause. That means, without a specifically justifiable reason that has anything to do with their job performance.

belllindsay
belllindsay

 @criticalthought Brilliantly said, and not just because you agree with me. ;) Thanks for such an eloquent comment. 

criticalthought
criticalthought

 @CjShaffer1 Say whatever you want? Not necessarily. In Canada we have hate laws for example that cover a lot of ground.

 

I only buy the "contract" argument if the contract is both limited and clear. No company can own anyone 24/7, and values must be limited to tangibles, like "you can't pretend to speak for the company," or "bad-mouth a company product" and so forth. That sort of thing is sensible to me and directly related to the business in question and its brand. Beyond that, "values" can be ascribed to anything, and any behaviour/speech can be used as evidence for their contravention. Scary thought.

CjShaffer1
CjShaffer1

 @criticalthought You still have the freedom to say what you want, they have the right to terminate your contract for it, as they should. Do you really think you should be able to say whatever you want with no fear of reprisal what so ever? You seem to forget that contract terminations work both ways

 

criticalthought
criticalthought

 @CjShaffer1 I think you missed the point. No one sells their autonomy to a corporation. It is not contractually possible in a free society. Are we not still free, or have we given all of our freedoms to corporations?

CjShaffer1
CjShaffer1

 @criticalthought You have the right to say, think, whatt ever you choose and the GOVERNMENT has no right to stop you. That being said, this isn't a case of GOVERNMENT censorship, this is a case of a contract between two private parties (Employee and Company) being ended because one party discovered their values were different than the other.