Time to dust off that social media policy -- everybody's watching

Single sign-on access through Facebook, Twitter, or Google makes it really easy to assemble a dossier, on what someone has said online. All the more reason to be extra careful about what you post.

On Monday, the Seattle City Council voted against selling a street to developer Chris Hansen, effectively ending Hansen’s latest effort to build a new arena in the city’s "stadium district." During the Council’s meeting (which are all live-streamed and usually live-tweeted by many in the audience), as councilmembers were making the comments that preface their votes, an ugly situation developed online that went far beyond people being upset about the outcome.

For the record, I am one of the people who believe Seattle should have sold the street to Hansen, and was extremely frustrated by how things went down, and said so on Twitter and elsewhere.

What I wasn’t doing, however, was participating in the misogynistic disaster it became. The final vote tally was 5-4. No big deal, right? Wrong. For no reason other than their beliefs in how this wasn’t a good deal for the city, the four male councilmembers voted to sell the street. The five female councilmembers voted against. You can imagine what came next.

The Stranger, Seattle’s popular alt-weekly, recapped a number of the posts (many are probably NSFW) in a story on Wednesday, and like the "GamerGate" movement and other topics before it, it swirled and swirled, roping in those who might have simply been bystanders or simply pointing out that they thought the comments were wrong.

It’s escalated to the point where Hansen and Seattle Mayor Ed Murray have had to publicly  condemn the comments, and one commenter, an attorney, has had a grievance filed with Washington’s Bar Association. Individuals, local celebrities, government officials, and even businesses have expressed their frustration (or support) for the Council’s vote. It’s an extremely hot-button topic and has been since the NBA allowed for the sale and move of the Seattle SuperSonics to Oklahoma City.

What was eye-opening for me was that where the comments were coming from went far beyond what I’ve seen in a lot of other "uproars" on the internet over the years. I’ve seen a lot of bad things said and written in my time online (since the early 90s) and on bulletin boards and other services, but a lot of that was done through anonymous accounts, handles not easily tracked to their source, and so forth. This was different. People essentially were risking their jobs, livelihoods, friendships, and beyond over it, in order to express frustration and hatred through whatever means they could find.

Single sign-on access through Facebook, Twitter, or Google (among others) makes it really easy to assemble a dossier, essentially, on what someone has said online, or at a minimum track a comment back to someone and his or her employer, family, or friends. The simplicity of connectivity today has, in my opinion, removed people’s filter on what they should or should not say. This isn’t at all to say that the internet and online commenting has made people more misogynistic or anything like that, but it’s removing what might have been a private conversation or watercooler talk and turning it into something that can be screen-captured, republished, and preserved for all time.

As communicators – or really, as business professionals – the internet has always stood as a blessing and as a curse. We’ve been aware of what our colleagues, clients, and others have been doing online in the back of our heads forever. The actions are not new. What’s growing, however, is the possibility that we’ll hear more frequently about the actions those colleagues and clients are taking in online communities from customers, prospects, and business partners, and that those actions may become even more scrutinized as they gain frequency. That’s especially true when it’s done on company time, and likely company internet access or devices.

None of this is terribly shocking, unfortunately. What might be, however, is the velocity at which we hear of things like a possible Bar Association suspension, job losses or suspensions, and other penalties for people who aren’t typically in the public eye. We’re all in it now, and it’s critical that everyone keeps an eye on what they do and say.

Perhaps it’s time to dust off that social media policy from five years ago again.

Tom Biro resides in Seattle and is director of marketing for Blink UX. His column focuses on how digital media affects and shifts PR. He can be reached at tom.biro@blinkux.com or on Twitter @tombiro.

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