A Social-Media Mistake Is No Reason to Be Fired

A new norm to blunt the callous, arbitrary power of digital mobs

Jon Ronson's forthcoming book, So You've Been Publicly Shamed, can't reach front porches soon enough, assuming it resembles the adaptation published in The New York Times. The journalist and humorist revisits the stories of mostly obscure people who showed bad judgment (as every Internet user has done at one time or another) but were unlucky enough to become the focus of an angry digital mob. The nature of their transgressions varies. But in each case, the punishments arbitrarily urged or meted out by callous strangers on social media affected their lives for years, costing them jobs, causing them to flee from their homes, stressing their loved ones, and sending them into states of existential despair.

Those subjected to death threats, harassment, termination, and mass outpourings of digital hate were not examined and found to be particularly malign or odious individuals. They just made a mistake that happened to go viral, often in ways that would've been extremely difficult to anticipate beforehand, and they were judged as if their transgressions alone defined them. Sometimes whole controversies unfolded on Twitter or Facebook. Other times, a digital journalist directed the ire of the Internet at a given target. Sam Biddle reflected on playing the instigator's role in an apology he posted on the one-year anniversary of helping to shame someone into unemployment, writing that when his target contacted him, "I realized suddenly that I felt very guilty about having—I assumed—destroyed another person on what was basically a professional whim."

Many people participate in digital mobs, and yet, they have few public defenders. Indeed, many who engage in digital pile-ons hardly realize what they're doing or contemplate the consequences of their actions. Take two instances of shaming that Ronson describes in his book excerpt:

One person I met was Lindsey Stone, a 32-year-old Massachusetts woman who posed for a photograph while mocking a sign at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknowns. Stone had stood next to the sign, which asks for “Silence and Respect,” pretending to scream and flip the bird. She and her co-worker Jamie, who posted the picture on Facebook, had a running joke about disobeying signs—smoking in front of No Smoking signs, for example—and documenting it. But shorn of this context, her picture appeared to be a joke not about a sign but about the war dead. Worse, Jamie didn’t realize that her mobile uploads were visible to the public.

Four weeks later, Stone and Jamie were out celebrating Jamie’s birthday when their phones started vibrating repeatedly. Someone had found the photo and brought it to the attention of hordes of online strangers. Soon there was a wildly popular “Fire Lindsey Stone” Facebook page. The next morning, there were news cameras outside her home; when she showed up to her job, at a program for developmentally disabled adults, she was told to hand over her keys. (“After they fire her, maybe she needs to sign up as a client,” read one of the thousands of Facebook messages denouncing her. “Woman needs help.”) She barely left home for the year that followed, racked by PTSD, depression and insomnia. “I didn’t want to be seen by anyone,” she told me last March at her home in Plymouth, Mass. “I didn’t want people looking at me.”

Instead, Stone spent her days online, watching others just like her get turned upon. In particular she felt for “that girl at Halloween who dressed as a Boston Marathon victim. I felt so terrible for her.” She meant Alicia Ann Lynch, 22, who posted a photo of herself in her Halloween costume on Twitter. Lynch wore a running outfit and had smeared her face, arms and legs with fake blood. After an actual victim of the Boston Marathon bombing tweeted at her, “You should be ashamed, my mother lost both her legs and I almost died,” people unearthed Lynch’s personal information and sent her and her friends threatening messages. Lynch was reportedly let go from her job as well.

Many of the individuals who shamed and harassed these women likely thought of themselves as doing something like telling a stranger, at a military cemetery or a Halloween party, "Hey, that's messed up, you jerk." In fact, they were helping to mete out a much more severe punishment, akin to thousands of angry people gathering around a person at a military cemetery or Halloween party to aggressively menace them. As a mob, their effect was to terrify and traumatize people. The punishments they imposed did not fit the crimes.

With more exposure to stories like these, I hope that more people will refrain from participating in what they'll now recognize as digital pile-ons-in-the-making.

Meanwhile, I propose a new social norm. My strong suspicion is that we'd all be better off if Americans developed a broad aversion to people being fired for public missteps that have nothing to do with their jobs. That norm would do more good than bad even if you think some people deserve to be fired. Sure, I'd advise against taking flip photographs at a military cemetery. But whatever one thinks of that error in judgment, there's no reason it should cause a woman to lose her job helping developmentally disabled adults.

An insensitive Halloween costume may justify a dirty look or scolding or even shaming. It should not deprive someone of their livelihood! It's strange when you think about it, this notion of getting sacked as a general purpose punishment that an angry faction of the public demands of an at-first-reluctant employer. The target, the mob demands, should have to find a new job, or go on welfare, or move back in with their mom, or perhaps starve. It's not even clear what's meant to happen. Let's rethink this.

People should usually feel ashamed of themselves for thinking, "I should get that stranger fired." Companies should be left alone when one of their employees does something offensive while "off-duty." Since some Internet trolls will break that rule, here's another: Companies should expect to get more criticism for caving to the demands of trolls than for letting a briefly unpopular employee keep performing his or her duties, even amid an episode of obsessive public shaming. After all, these things always blow over, the attention span of the Internet being short, while losing one's job is, for many, a setback with consequences that last years. And have any of these firings achieved any social good? I defy anyone to produce hard evidence to that effect.

Here's what corporations should say in the future: "Sorry, we have a general policy against firing people based on social media campaigns. We're against digital mobs."

But note the one exception built into what I propose. Sometimes people do stupid things in the public eye that relate directly to their jobs. If, say, a DEA agent writes a Facebook post bragging about how many innocent black people he's going to lock up for drug trafficking next month, then it's obviously legitimate to demand his immediate termination. But generally speaking, Americans ought to be averse to the notion of companies policing the speech and thoughts of employees when they're not on the job. Instead, many are zealously demanding that companies police their workers more, as if failing to fire someone condones their bad behavior outside work. Few general standards work out best in every last circumstance. But the one I suggest would be better than what we've got.