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You can't do that on Facebook
When social media conversations turn less-than-civil, companies can throw the Facebook at you
In a sort of life-becomes-work moment, just as I, a reporter, was conducting interviews for a story on the potential ramifications of being outspoken politically on Facebook, the following showed up in my personal feed:
“This year, 2 million people in the world will die from simple starvation, whether it be from inability to pay for food or lack of food altogether. Less than 150 of them will be American. Food stamps and ‘entitlement’ benefits and farm subsidies are a good idea. We take care of our own.”
Some 27 comments later, some in agreement, others not (and samples of both laced with four letter words), the original poster offered a self-admonishment for ever starting the discussion citing a change in his own reasoning but not a change of mind.
The incident serves to highlight what has been a growing trend of less-than-civil discourse in the forum of social media. Building momentum during a contentious election season and barely slacking even since, a newsfeed without a pointed political comment has been something of a rarity, as people unreservedly express their opinions on everything from wealth distribution to gay rights to gun control online. And in a country where free speech is a guaranteed right, why shouldn’t they?
Well, because sometimes you just can’t do that on Facebook. Or sometimes it’s just a better idea not to, especially when your profile lists where you work.
Recently the topic of free speech in social media made national headlines, albeit outside the realm of political topics, when five New York workers expressed dissatisfaction with another coworker on Facebook and were fired for it. As reported by Slate.com, the National Labor Relations Board took issue with the firing, citing the workers’ right to collectively convene, in the vein of a union, and ordered they be allowed back to work.
But that doesn’t protect an employee who speaks out on, say, abortion and is let go for it.
Locally, larger corporations acknowledged being aware of the issue, but reported no specific problems.
“Essentially, we ask our employees to use good judgment when communicating through social media, just as they would in any other form of interaction,” wrote Scott Morris of Windstream in response to an email inquiry. “Our employees are conscientious, and social media really hasn’t been an issue for us.”
Morris said the company does have guidelines for interacting with customers, prospective customers and job candidates though social media, and that those guidelines aren’t intended to restrict personal communication unrelated to the company.
“That said, employees can’t expect privacy while using social media,” he wrote. “If an employee does not exercise good judgment, Windstream has the right to address that behavior in accordance with our personnel policies. For example, making harassing or threatening remarks, or disclosing confidential company information could be grounds for disciplinary action, up to and including termination.”
Wyatt Jefferies, corporate communications manager at Acxiom, said he was unable to elaborate on the company’s policy.
“We do have a social media policy,” he wrote in an email request for an interview. “However, as part of our internal policy, we do not share it publicly.”
Representatives of Verizon did not respond to a request to discuss the company’s social media policy.
In the public sector, a political conversation is not without its own set of constraints. Laws, particularly the Hatch Act of 1939 and its revisions, put certain constraints on employees of federal, state and local governments from engaging in partisan political activity. Government property likewise can’t be used for campaign purposes. So public employees have to be wary.
Mike Scoles, a university professor, is always aware of those bounds when he’s active on Facebook, which includes engaging in politically charged topics. It’s conversation that’s culled around half his friends list over the last few contentious months, he said, though more so on matters of religion than politics.
“It’s important,” he said, “to not use state equipment to state political beliefs and to not present yourself as representing [the opinion of] the university.”
That last part can be tricky, he acknowledged. Though he doesn’t identify his workplace on his personal page, he said it’s obvious that friends will know where he works. But, then, they should also know the opinions expressed on his page are his own. After all, campus policy prevents campaign signs on office doors or on vehicles being used for official business. So, by extension, taking politics online must be a matter of personal choice.
Elsewhere in education, sometimes what can’t be said on Facebook isn’t a matter of content, it’s a matter of context. Deb Roush, spokesperson for the Pulaski County Special School District, explained:
“People who work in the public sector, many times, and this includes teachers and certified personnel, must follow ethical standards or face repercussions. However, social media is a very gray area because what is written, unless it’s really blatant, is oftentimes up for interpretation. So that makes it difficult — and certainly when you’re talking about a person’s politics, that makes it even more difficult because there are first amendment issues.
“[So], it would not be an issue of their politics, but the way in which it’s presented. You’d have to be acting unethically and unprofessionally while sharing an opinion. There are professional and ethical ways to share your opinions,” she said.
Speaking not of district policy but for herself, Roush said she clips her own feed when she sees political opinions get out of control — whether she agrees or not — simply because she’s tired of seeing it.
“Personally, I removed people from my Facebook page — some who shared my opinion — because I didn’t want to hear it anymore. I was just so tired of politics on Facebook. I choose to think of my Facebook page as a place where I go to see pictures of cute kids and people’s dogs and funny comments and where people are and what they’re enjoying, not reading their opinion on politics.”
That’s not to say she deletes everyone who utters any kind of political opinion or that she can’t stand political talk, she adds. She enjoys discussion when it’s measured, but just doesn’t want to hear the same old drumbeat all the time.
“If you go on there and post the same thing 96 times about Mitt Romney or Barack Obama, is it really going to change anyone’s mind?”