Facing outrage, social media's auto-correct kicks in
05:00 AM, Feb 25, 2013
All it took was one tweet late Sunday for the multitudes on social media to demonstrate that there actually are boundaries.
It happened when someone at The Onion not clear who or why posted a tweet during the Academy Awards calling 9-year-old Oscar nominee Quvenzhané Wallis an obscene four-letter word.
The tweet was taken down within an hour, but the avalanche of enraged response tweets kept coming anyway, hundreds per second, most of them expressing contempt and incredulity. Although a few tweeters claimed it was no big deal, many, many more said, “NOT FUNNY.” Others suggested such a tweet would not have appeared if Wallis were a white child.
Monday was another day that put our disorienting and disheveled media environment on display. It’s a place where the rules, such as they are, are constantly shifting, and millions delight in smashing through boundaries any boundaries.
“We’re seeing both the good and bad sides of social media,” says Anne Klaeysen,a pastor and a leader at the New York Society for Ethical Culture. “On the one hand, there’s more of this vileness made available (to all), but on the other hand, people do respond to it. People are held accountable and held responsible.”
Twitter declined to say how many tweets have been posted regarding the Onion episode, and declined to comment on the controversy.
But by Monday, 12 hours after the offending tweet, the CEO of the newspaper of satire and silliness apologized. In what is certainly a rare move, if not the first in its 25-year history, the publication dear to fans of snarky humor was forced to apologize to Wallis. It was abject and it was via social media, of course.
“No person should be subjected to such a senseless, humorless comment masquerading as satire,” read CEO Steve Hannah’s letter on the Onion Facebook page. (Hannah himself never appeared anywhere, in person or on camera.) “Miss Wallis, you are young and talented and deserve better. All of us at The Onion are deeply sorry.”
He promised the offender would be disciplined and that Onion policies would be tightened to ensure it never happened again. Based in Chicago, the weekly founded as a college publication is supposed to be bitingly funny, and often is. Its joke “news” stories are sometimes mistaken for the real thing, as when the Washington Post took seriously its report last week that Sarah Palin, the former Alaska governor/GOP veep candidate/Fox News pundit, had joined the Al-Jazeera network.
Of course, some people were skeptical about Hannah’s regrets.
“I’m cynical about these things,” says Klaeysen. “He did a damage assessment. It was not done out of any good feeling or intent to be better, this was a damage assessment (of) ‘we’ve gone too far.’ “
Sincere or not, the episode was remarkable not because someone said something nasty or foolish on Twitter that’s a daily occurrence but that so many others pushed back in the most effective way on social media.
“The most powerful law in social media is common law,” says Steve Rubel, who studies the intersection between social media and the mainstream press for PR firm Edelman. “The most powerful law is what the people say is an acceptable form of practice and what isn’t,” he adds. “Obviously it was very clear this was inappropriate, but even when you have cases when it’s unclear, it’s a very democratic, self-regulating environment.”
Yes, a vast amount of dreck cursing, misogyny, racism, hate, bullying, bad behavior of every kind is spewed into our culture from social media every minute, available to wider and wider audiences, says Lee Rainie, a director at the Pew Research Center who studies the social impact of technology.
“It’s not clear there’s more than when our conversations were taking place over backyard fences and water coolers, when conversations were more one-to-one than many-to-many,” Rainie says. “But it’s not just bad stuff, there’s also more altruism, more people helping each other, there’s more of every dimension of human experience amplified in these spaces. At the same time, there’s this pretty pronounced push-back against those who are acting out.”
One consequence of the diversification and democratization of media, he says, is that we all have a lot more to argue about when it comes to setting boundaries of right and wrong.
“It’s a disruptive environment. The rules of the road are not at all clear anymore about what we say and how we treat each other,” he says.” What’s especially disorienting is that not all the changes push only in one direction, only good or only bad.”
Also thanks to social media, the impact and the feedback are instantaneous. “You can cause great damage in an instant,” he says. “Again, it’s disorienting and it’s hard to get your bearings when you’re in the middle of a (PR crisis) storm.”
So will The Onion suffer permanent damage from this episode? After all, being provocative is its business model.
“I personally think they will come back from this just fine, although it might take them a little while,” Rubel says. “Sure, they lost a certain number of people (but) there’s enough in their goodwill bank with the public.”
Besides, something else egregious will likely wander into view in another week or so, he says. Because something always does.