Lindsay Bell

1984 Redux: The Social Media Thought Police

By: Lindsay Bell | October 31, 2012 | 
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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 V3 Marketing, 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.

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