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Cyber and Privacy Risk and Insurance

Real-Life Consequences in a Digital World: the Role of Social Media

Mark Lanterman | July 13, 2018

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Woman poitning to Twitter on a smartphone

In September 2017, I wrote an article for IRMI, "Personal Information and Social Media: What Not To Post." In it, I described the need to proactively protect yourself online by not posting everything and being conscientious about the personal information we share to avoid becoming targets of cyber crime.

When you feel anonymous online, it's sometimes more difficult to appreciate the very real consequences of our digital actions.

Tweets Matter

In recent months, Roseanne Barr became the subject of international debate when her offensive tweeting got the successful revival of her show canceled. In spite of the show's popularity and mass market appeal, ABC was quick to pull Roseanne. In fact, it was only about 10 hours after Ms. Barr tweeted her offensive message about Valerie Jarrett, a former White House adviser to Barack Obama, that ABC acted. Regardless of whether we agree or disagree with the network's denunciation of Ms. Barr, one thing is clear: a single tweet can have severe, and very fast, consequences in today's interconnected world.

Ms. Barr made several attempts to evade the backlash (her Ambien-related excuses were especially implausible), and she is not alone in this response. Those who put themselves in this position are often slow to properly address the consequences. In spite of situations like Ms. Barr's, there seems to be an attitude surrounding social media that pervades; that is, surely, no one can take a tweet too seriously? If I explain that I didn't mean it, or apologize for it, that will somehow lessen the damage it may cause? However, public perception of tweets and social media-related missteps time and again demonstrates that not only does the public take what you post seriously, it also seldom forgives—or forgets.

With this degree of accountability, social media users need to recognize the power of their words and the incongruence between feeling anonymous on the Internet and having real-life consequences for our digital actions. We all need to remind ourselves that, in an interconnected world, where the news seems to circulate faster than it is created, we should not say anything online that we wouldn't want our boss, our parents, our children, or our next-door neighbor to read.

Work and Social Media

This is an especially pertinent point within working environments. Organizations continue to struggle with conveying social media policies to employees regarding what is appropriate, the concept of being an organizational representative even outside of the office, and the reality that if you are posting something online, you are posting for everyone. I have heard one too many stories, as we all probably have, about an employee calling out sick only to have their boss stumbling across a photo online of them at the beach that day. The fact is, posting online means posting for everyone.

In addition to the feeling of anonymity that clouds many people's judgment when it comes to what to post on social media, the immediacy that this form of communication that these platforms allow us, in addition to their seemingly informal nature, make for a very dangerous combination. Again, the attitude seems to be that any words expressed so quickly and so informally should not be taken "too seriously." And yet, as in Ms. Barr's case, the medium does not excuse the content. Given the severity of the situation, Ms. Barr's words would have held equal weight had they come to us via a handwritten letter or a press conference. In fact, the only difference may have been a slower reaction time for ABC in cancelling her show.

In organizational settings, it's important that employees understand what is expected of them when it comes to managing their social media accounts. This seems to be a frequent point of confusion in the workplace, and with good reason. The distinction between public and private accounts, what is appropriate inside and outside of the physical office space, and what makes for a "bad tweet" all seem to be topics of debate. These topics seem to be particularly divisive among different generations of technology users.

Upper management may struggle to appreciate the fact that newer hires have been raised on social media, and thus, it plays a different role in their lives. Trying to control posting may seem too heavy handed for newer workforce generations, and an unchecked social media presence may permanently hurt an organization's public image.


While organizational social media policies are never "one size fits all," a common standard that should be easy to understand and convey is avoid posting anything that you would not want your boss, manager, or even your mom to see. Recognize that anything posted online is anything but anonymous. Additionally, slowing down makes a world of difference when it comes to acting responsibly online. Instead of acting immediately to catch up with the slew of digital information that's thrown at us every day, take a minute to carefully consider whether or not what you have to say is valuable, worded respectfully, and you wouldn't have a problem with any particular person reading it.

If you have a question about any of these facets, ask yourself if it's worth your reputation or your career. Happy tweeting!

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