Exclusive: Social media monitoring during polarized times

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Goosehead Insurance. Navistar Direct Marketing. St. Vincent College. Cogensia. Hardly household names, at least until early 2021. These organisations might still be tucked away in relative obscurity but for the actions of some of their employees. These activists—attorneys, marketers and academics among them–were among those arrested for activities related to the 6 January insurrection at the US Capitol, in which a mob stormed the seat of the US legislature in an effort to prevent Congress from certifying Joe Biden as the next president. Now the very mention of these organisations’ names conjures horrifying images that tarnish their brands, through no fault of their own.

As societies from the United States to the United Kingdom to Brazil to Hong Kong polarize, employees are taking to social media to speak their minds on issues from social justice to COVID-prevention measures. The problem arises when that speech promotes discrimination, hatred, violence, unlawful activity–or even documents such activity, such as the videos taken of the Capitol riots and posted on social media. Should organisations protect their reputations—and the incalculable monetary value thereof—by monitoring the social media feeds of staff who may harbour noxious views or have become radicalised?

The question is tricky and can depend on various local, state/provincial, national and international laws, regulations and other governing principles. Other key factors include the organisation’s monitoring policies, the extent and purpose of the monitoring, whether workers belong to a union and the type and extent of action taken against the worker. Under US law, for example, at one extreme, a business can’t take action against an employee who posts support for a political candidate. At the other end of the spectrum, a company can terminate an employee who films himself committing a criminal act and posts it on social media.

Social media policies

But that leaves a lot in between. “Many companies have social media policies that say if you bring disrepute, shame, or embarrassment on the company, we reserve the right to terminate your employment,” says David Barron, a Houston, Texas-based Labour Attorney at Cozen O’Connor. “The problem is execution. What falls into that category?” Determining that someone has been radicalised is not straightforward.

Take QAnon. Millions of people around the world ascribe to the malign conspiracies and bizarre pronouncements circulated in that group, much of it racist or promoting violence. But an employee who parrots a relatively benign QAnon talking point, say that John F. Kennedy faked his death and is now ‘Q’ of QAnon, presents a much different case than someone who insistently tweets about school shootings being false-flag attacks and actors pretending to be grieving parents.

In the United States, radicalisation is rampant, says Alex Goldenberg, Lead Intelligence Analyst at the Network Contagion Research Initiative, a not-for-profit that aims “to track, expose and combat misinformation, deception, manipulation and hate across social media channels.” Among that disinformation are virulent and false diatribes by staff that clash with their employers’ ethos. For example, an Ontario, Canada, nurse practitioner has been under investigation by her employer, a provincial long-term care home inspection authority, for using Facebook to claim that the COVID pandemic is a hoax and that vaccines cause autism.

These and other cases, says Goldenberg, not only damage reputation and revenue, but can imperil safety and public health, which could have cascading effects on an economy already crippled by the pandemic.

Social media posts have damaged corporate reputations and plundered bottom lines. Although there is no indication that an employee was involved, a 2020 tweet by a QAnon member put furniture maker Wayfair in its crosshairs. The tweet, which went viral, claimed that Wayfair used its furniture to conceal children as part of a trafficking ring. QAnon sympathisers threatened Wayfair executives, doxed employees and threatened to short their stock.

The taint of association even extends to business partners. For example, when Australian celebrity chef and conspiracy theorist Pete Evans posted a neo-Nazi symbol on Instagram in November 2020, he was booted off an Australian television show and abandoned by his book publisher. Retailers rushed to drop any products with which he was associated. 18 months prior, the BBC sacked comedian Danny Baker after he tweeted a picture of a couple holding hands with a chimpanzee in a suit, with the caption “Royal baby leaves hospital.” Many viewers believed it to be a slur on Meghan Markle’s mixed-race heritage.

In response, some companies are clarifying their conflict of interest policies, according to security executives. For example, new language may specify that staff can be terminated if they engage in outside activities that conflict with either their work responsibilities or the organisation’s mission. That scope would presumably cover some types of offensive social media posts.

But an employer that aggressively acts to take adverse action against an employee who posts on social media runs the risk of an unlawful termination lawsuit. At least two of the people fired for their involvement in the storming of the US Capitol have sued their employers.

Social media monitoring

Still, companies that provide social media monitoring services cite an increase in both interest and new business. In the United States, monitoring providers say that the bump started well before the Capitol uprising; they date it to the George Floyd death at the hands of police and the subsequent protests and riots.

Any monitoring and consequential action by an organisation should be carefully considered through the lenses of law, security, reputation, company policy and culture and other factors. Britain’s Advisory, Conciliation and Arbitration Service offers some guidance. It suggests that: “Employers should make it clear when employees will be seen as representing the company and what personal views they can express – for example, some employees are forbidden from expressing any political views.”

But companies should consider that ignorance can be a strength, says Barron. “The one legal issue to be aware of,” he says, “is you may be exposed to information about your employees that causes problems.” For instance, an employer might learn about staff health issues on social media, which could put them in legal jeopardy if, for example, a staff person that the employer learned to be pregnant is terminated or passed over for promotion.

“That’s why lots of companies don’t want to be privy to social media feeds,” says Barron. “There’s something to be said for staying arm’s length from your employees’ personal lives.”

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Michael Gips

By Michael Gips, JD, CPP, CSyP

Michael Gips is the principal of Global Insights in Professional Security, a firm that provides strategic advice, content, brand awareness and business development services for corporate security executives, security firms, academic institutions and association. A frequent presenter, Mike has published more than 1,000 articles on a broad range of security and risk issues.

You can connect with Michael on LinkedIn here

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