Following a social media firestorm that claimed the job of Christine McMullen Lindgren, a banker who posted racist comments on Facebook, media experts are being asked the question that might never be answered — why does this keep happening?
“Social media didn’t cause that woman to lose her job. Her ignorance did,” said Tracie Powell, founder and editor of All Digitocracy, an online platform focused on media diversity and audience development.
“There is no expectation of privacy when it comes to the Internet. None,” Powell said. “How many times must we see people lose their jobs before it finally sinks in?”
On Wednesday, Lindgren, who at the time identified herself as a Bank of America personal banker, launched an attack on Facebook in which she used the n-word twice, suggested that slavery was deserved, that welfare was common among blacks, and that blacks should pack up and go back to Africa.
Social media — most notably Facebook and Twitter — quickly pounced on her and the bank. Less than 24 hours after the Atlanta-based employee posted the rant, Bank of America fired her.
Sherri Williams, a media scholar who teaches at Wake Forest University, said these types of incidents continue to happen because people feel comfortable expressing themselves freely on social networks without realizing their comments may be perceived as offensive to a national audience.
“People are used to saying what they want on social media and thinking that their friends and followers are their only audience. They don’t realize that anything they post has the potential to go viral,” Williams said.
“But there are consequences for the racist, sexist and insensitive things people post. These kinds of posts have ended people’s careers because companies don’t want to be associated with employees who express ideas that are prejudicial. That’s bad for business,” Williams said.
Lindgren is just the latest in a long line of people who have lost their reputations or jobs or both over something they posted on social media.
There were the bankers England, who were fired over re-enacting, and posting on Instagram, a mock ISIS beheading.
Or the Houston hospital worker who in the wake of the Ferguson uprising said that police need to start mowing down black people to “purge them.”
Or Justine Sacco, who before boarding a plane in 2013 from New York to Cape Town tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”
Before her 11-hour flight landed, while she was totally oblivious, Sacco had become an international pariah and had been fired from her corporate communications job.
Closer to home, a Georgia education official who posted online about race, religion and partisan politics was fired in January.
And last October in Atlanta, Gerod Roth was fired from Polaris Marketing Group after an errant Facebook post. Roth, who is white, posted a selfie of himself and a black co-worker’s toddler son.
It seemed innocent, until comments about the photo descended toward madness. Roth said the child “was abandoned in the Atlanta projects to fend for himself, he is deaf mute, (can’t) properly communicate and is in and out of a shelter home …”
Richard Eldredge, digital editor at VOX Teen Communications and founder and editor of the digital magazine “Eldredge ATL,” said while bad decision-making is hardly new, personal technology has made it easier to earn a “scarlet letter.”
“If we get incensed about something, responding to it is as easy as launching an app on our phones,” Eldredge said. “I’ve seen well-respected adult professionals in this city … post idiotic things that damage their brand and credibility.”
Once Out, It’s Out
Williams, at Wake Forest University, said while social media democratizes communication and allows everyday people and marginalized groups to amplify their voices — think #blacklivesmatter or the #beyhive — it has also become a space where bigotry can be amplified.
“Everyday individuals’ bigoted feelings are exposed through social media and we see them face consequences, especially when Black Twitter’s vast powerful network activates,” she said.
Powell, the Digitocracy editor who is also a Knight Journalism Fellow at Stanford University, trains and advises media professionals and brands on how to avoid online pitfalls.
In other words, prevent them from becoming Lindgrens.
“People don’t think about all the myriad ways information gets out,” Powell said. “Once it’s out, it’s out.”
While Lindgren most likely was posting to engage with her Facebook friends, someone took a screen shot of her rant before she could delete it. Within hours, it was global.
“It took only five minutes for both an African-American Facebook friend to post, ‘She’s blown a gasket here, folks,’ and another to discern where she worked, presumably because the information was posted on her profile,” Eldredge said. “The lack of punctuation and the run-on sentence in the original post could indicate that it was tapped out quickly without a lot of thought via a mobile phone app. We’ve made it scary easy to post without thinking.”
Millions of people saw it, thousands of people forwarded it, and hundreds of people commented on all of those forwards. People even began flooding Bank of America’s social media accounts and phone lines, demanding answers (and Lindgren’s head).
“Think before you post,” Powell said. “Ask yourself, is this really something I want to put out there? Is this really reflective of me as a person, and how I want people to view me? Ask, how might others perceive this? How might this impact my job prospects?”
At Vox, Eldredge has developed a series of workshops to train teens in social media etiquette with an eye on college. One exercise encourages students to play the role of a college admissions officer and critique the social media page of a classmate, looking for questionable content.
“We’ve never held a digital imprint workshop at VOX when teens haven’t gone in and deleted certain photos or posts after a peer points out something inappropriate,” he said.
The workshops have been expanded to schools and after-school programs.
“It’s really a lesson for every single one of us,” Eldredge said. “Nobody is immune from letting their emotions temporarily take over and putting something out there that can be captured for all eternity via a screen grab. The trick is not posting it in the first place.”