Why some people should avoid social media completely

In February, the American Red Cross social media specialist Gloria Huang sent the following tweet out on the organization’s Twitter feed:

But the party girl’s rogue tweet stayed up only about an hour on the site, before a flurry of complaints prompted the organization to remove it. Huang later blamed the mistake on her “inability to use Hootsuite(a service that enables users to manage multiple Twitter accounts). 

But according to American Red Cross officials, Huang’s original post “was no big deal”, says Wendy Harman, social media director for the Red Cross, who explained:

“We are an organization that deals with life-changing disasters and this wasn’t one of them. It was just a little mistake.”

Well, maybe. Just a “little mistake” if we don’t mind sending our donor dollars to an organization so they can hire social media specialists who are not smart enough to know how to use Hootsuite.

Around the same time, fashion designer Kenneth Cole was getting himself into hot water, too, after he had the goofball idea to cash in on the political unrest in Egypt to flog his new spring line. He (or perhaps, more likely, one of his minions) posted this on his own Twitter account:

“Millions are in an uproar in #Cairo. Rumor is they heard our new spring collection is now available online – KC”

A few hours after the tweet was posted, Cole himself (no doubt having been smacked upside the head by an alarmed staffer who had become aware of the growing public backlash) issued this statement on his label’s Facebook page:

“I apologize to everyone who was offended by my insensitive tweet about the situation in Egypt. I’ve dedicated my life to raising awareness about serious social issues, and in hindsight my attempt at humor regarding a nation liberating themselves against oppression was poorly timed and absolutely inappropriate.”

Kenneth Cole, Chairman and Chief Creative Officer

The second message, sent out by Cole personally, sparked a wave of criticism and controversy that, according to the Los Angeles Times which covered the story, hasn’t let up much despite the fact that the famous fashion designer did apologize and did take down the offending tweet.

And in typical Twitter fashion, an account mocking Kenneth Cole was immediately launched, spoofing Cole and posting a full stream of offensive tweets.  The Times ran this tweet from a fake Kenneth Cole account:

“We stand with the people of Egypt. President Mubarak — step down NOW, and I’ll give you 15% off any non-sale item in our stores. – FKC”

Recently, Police Chief Joseph E. Thomas Jr. of Southfield, Michigan told the New York Times that his department officials now routinely check police recruits’ social networking pages when they apply for a job on the force. In one case, he said, a candidate posted this update on Facebook:

“Just returned from the interview with the Southfield Police Department and I can’t wait to get a gun and kick some ass.”

Luckily for the citizens of Southfield, his application to become a police officer was summarily rejected after Captain Thomas got a look at this update.

Other job-hunters might do well to heed warnings from companies like “Social Intelligence” that do social media background checks on potential employees for corporate clients by doing sweeps of job applicants’ Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn accounts. (Hint: time to take down those stupid frat party photos). Many employers also do their own unofficial social media background checks – which means your online presence will be investigated before you’re accepted for that job you’re seeking.

Here’s another example: Stony Brook University Medical Center in Long Island announced last summer that it was developing a revised ethics policy after a medical student posted a photo on Facebook of a classmate posing with a thumbs up next to a dead body.

And in May, a 43-year old Florida high school teacher named Charles Willis lost his tenure after he used inappropriate images (including pornography), discussed drinking alcohol, and used profanity on his Facebook site (where he had friended 120 of his own students).

These are just a few examples featured on Friday Faux Pas, an occasional series of observations on some seriously stupid (and potentially career-limiting) things people are posting on social media.

FFP is the brainchild of the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, a first-of-its-kind social media center focused mostly (but not exclusively) on health care. FFP should be the very first stop for those physicians, for example, who are now being encouraged to jump on the social media bandwagon (whether they have anything pithy to say or not) in case they believe that we really need to know what they had for lunch today.

I am not making this up: when I checked out the Twitter feed of a physician who had recently become a follower on my own Twitter account, I found inane pearls of wisdom like:

“Corned beef sandwich for lunch today – YUM!” 

Really? Seriously? Is any human being on earth that interested in this guy’s lunch menu?

I have to say that the folks at Mayo are pretty savvy among health care providers in adopting social media tools, which began with their podcasts in 2005. Mayo Clinic has the most popular medical provider channel on YouTube and more than 205,000 followers on Twitter, as well as an active Facebook page with over 55,000 connections.

With its News Blog, Podcast Blog and Sharing Mayo Clinic (a blog that enables patients and employees to tell their Mayo stories – including my own about attending the 2008 WomenHeart Science & Leadership Symposium For Women With Heart Disease in Rochester), Mayo has been a pioneer in hospital blogging. And MayoClinic.com, Mayo’s consumer health information site, also hosts a dozen blogs on topics ranging from Alzheimer’s to The Mayo Clinic Diet.

You’d think that, particularly for health care professionals, figuring out what is appropriate to post on social media and what is inappropriate would be just basic common sense.

But evidently there are very brainy people out there who seem to lack basic common sense, and whose Facebook activity has already led to serious career consequences.

The real problem, according to the Mayo Clinic Center for Social Media, didn’t begin with Facebook.

“The real problem is that people are taking inappropriate pictures and behaving unprofessionally. Posting the picture to Facebook only brought the misconduct to light. Social media platforms increase the cost of bad behavior.”

Consider, for example, 48-year old E.R. physician Dr. Alexandra Thran who recently learned the hard way that she really shouldn’t be chatting about her patients on her Facebook page.

She was fired from her Rhode Island hospital last year and subsequently reprimanded by the state medical board because she had posted personal information online about a trauma patient. Although her Facebook post did not include the patient’s name, she violated the patient’s privacy rights by writing enough that others in the community could easily identify the patient, according to a board filing.

Or how about:

  • five Oceanside, California nurses who were fired from Tri-City Medical Center for allegedly discussing their patients on Facebook, even though no patient names, photos or identifying information were included in the posts;
  • the 2008 photo of a topless British nurse — with patients in the background — that appeared online, causing her hospital, Northampton General, to block access to all social networking sites from hospital computers;
  • two Wisconsin nurses who were fired after they took photos of a patient’s X-ray and allegedly posted them to Facebook;
  • online photos of nurses having a food fight at Stafford Hospital in the U.K. in 2009, creating a public uproar because the incident took place after a heavily publicized report that linked patient deaths to poor nursing care.

Now it’s not that I have anything against medical professionals who frolic topless with their patients, steal private health information like patient x-rays, or enjoy the occasional hospital food fight, but, honestly, what are these people thinking when they decide to go ahead and post the resulting evidence on Facebook for all the world to see?

Consider, too, the morons who went crazy during Vancouver’s Stanley Cup hockey riots on June 15th when the hometown Canucks lost the final Game 7 to the visiting Boston Bruins. After a fun-filled festival of fighting, looting and arson, many rioters went home and actually posted to Facebook their self-incriminating photos and confessions of criminal activities.  (See I Rest My Case: Facebook’s Appeal To The Truly Stupid).

One such thug wrote:

“I torched like seven cars and looted at least three stores!”

Unfortunately for him and his longterm future, his Facebook page also featured photos of himself mugging for the camera during his riot activities, plus his full name and the name of his workplace.

So one sharp-eyed Vancouverite, horrified and disgusted like all of us were by what a mob of 150,000+ drunken idiots had done to this beautiful city, simply forwarded the Facebook link directly to the public relations department of the thug’s employer, as well as to the Vancouver Police Department Tip Line.

In fact, a spontaneous and completely grassroots “naming and shaming” community campaign became surprisingly effective in publicly identifying the culprits from thousands of incriminating photos taken with cell phone cameras during the riot.

In at least one case, parents turned in their own teenager to the Vancouver Police Department after seeing online photos of their son looting a downtown store.

Such consequences may become increasingly common, especially in the workplace.

Over 20% of North American companies with at least 1,000 employees have investigated a leak of information to a social network site, according to a survey by the Internet security firm Proofpoint Inc.

And 7% have actually fired an employee for violating social network policy. That only happens, however, when a company actually has a social network policy. (If yours doesn’t, get one).

Another study found that almost one quarter of employers surveyed by the Society of Corporate Compliance and Ethics in 2009 had disciplined an employee for improper activities on social networking sites.

As I wrote recently in Why Narcissists Love Facebook,  Australian research on Facebook users published in the journal Computers in Human Behavior reached these less-than-flattering conclusions:

“Facebook users have higher levels of total narcissism, extraversion, exhibitionism and leadership than Facebook non-users. Secondly, individuals with higher scores on exhibitionism also have higher preferences for photos and status updates than for the site’s other features.

“These findings substantiate the proposition that Facebook is particularly appealing for narcissistic and exhibitionistic people. In fact, it could be argued that Facebook specifically gratifies the narcissistic individual’s need to engage in self-promoting and superficial behavior.”

In a nutshell, this means that if you have something utterly “self-promoting and superficial” that you somehow feel compelled to share on social media because you truly need to believe that others care about it, particularly if it invites litigation, disciplinary action, termination, or the utter trashing of your reputation – you might want to fight that urge.

See also:



“Facebook Riot Calls Earn Men Four-Year Prison Terms”   

August 17, 2011 – The Guardian, London   –  Two men in England who posted messages on Facebook inciting other people to riot in their home towns have each been sentenced to four years in prison by a British judge following last week’s rioting. Both men had organized online accounts; one later claimed that although his page was merely “a joke”, his rioting message was distributed to 400 Facebook contacts. Judge Elgan Edwards described the crime  committed an “evil act”. He said:

“This happened at a time when collective insanity gripped the nation. Your conduct was quite disgraceful and message you posted on Facebook chills the blood. You sought to take advantage of crime elsewhere and transpose it to the peaceful streets of Northwich.”


“Fire Department/EMS Workers Post Sickening Victim Photos Online”

March 31, 2013 – New York Post, New York City  – New York paramedic Lt. Timothy Dluhos posted pictures of his patients online, including one of a heavy-set woman with this snarky caption Photoshopped over her wheelchair: “Wide Load.” Another Facebook user identifying himself as FDNY EMT Anthony Palmigiano posted a snapshot of a man with a gaping neck wound on a Facebook group page called EMT/Paramedic, calling it a “table saw injury.”  The victim’s face is clearly visible. FDNY spokesman Frank Gribbon responded: “Anyone who posts photos of patients without authorization will face termination.”  Last summer, 17 New York City police officers were disciplined for racist posts on Facebook following the West Indian Day Parade, and paramedic Mark Musarella was fired and sentenced to 200 hours of community service for putting on Facebook a cellphone picture he took of a Staten Island strangling victim.

Last week, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued an order warning police officers not to reveal their NYPD employment online or embarrass the force on social media. The FDNY said it is also reviewing its social media policies.


Public Relations Pro Fired After Racist Tweet Goes Viral

December 20, 2013 – ForbesWebsite parent company IAC, owner of Match.com, Vimeo and many other popular services, announced today it has fired its senior PR chief Justine Sacco for her instantly infamous tweet: “The offensive comment does not reflect the views and values of IAC.  We take this issue very seriously, and we have parted ways with the employee in question,” the company said in a statement emailed to journalists. Sacco’s unfortunate tweet went viral. Meanwhile, Sacco was shielded from the Internet on an international flight to South Africa, completely unaware that she would be infamous by the time she landed, and that her employer had already informed the media that it was taking “appropriate action” to deal with her. The hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet began trending on Twitter long before her plane touched down. And Forbes predicts that “to be Sacco-ed” will certainly enter our lexicon.

It’s important to remember that her tweet may seem no worse than countless stupid, racist or offensive posts seen on Twitter or other social media every minute of every day, but the fact that this one came from a person with public relations credentials and experience is what sealed the fate of the unfortunately clueless Ms. Sacco.

Another reminder: when you publish a stupid tweet, the whole world can see it.


6 thoughts on “Why some people should avoid social media completely

  1. Hi, came across your post and just wanted to throw my 2 cents in – I hope my follow up tweet about my “inability to use Hootsuite” was taken with the humor that I intended!

    I certainly felt very embarassed when I realized what happened, and was trying to let people know that it was a mistake and that I was responsible for it. The real story is that I was tweeting from my phone and accidentally selected the wrong account to send a tweet through – and I learned my lesson and certainly won’t make the mistake again (I took the @RedCross account off the Hootsuite app and installed another Twitter app to handle only that account).

    In the meantime, I continue on my daily work at Red Cross with goal of helping people find the information and help that they need through our online presences on social media.

    Thanks for listening,


    • Thanks Gloria for taking the time to personally respond. I can understand how embarrassing your “mistake” must have been for you. But the fact that your off-duty alcohol consumption was considered important enough to immediately post from your phone ( to post ANYWHERE, never mind on your employer’s Facebook page by accident) merely reconfirms the whole point of this article: that for a large number of people in the 18-34 demographic – I don’t know you, of course, but I’m taking a wild guess that you might dwell in that age group – posting every single inane detail of life seems worth doing. Read Why Narcissists Love Facebook for more from the Australian researchers who explain why it may not be so.

  2. Carolyn I could not agree more. This urge to divulge mundane minute-by-minute updates about one’s life seems typical of many social media users – and certainly the ones featured here and on Mayo Clinic’s Social Media site.

    In the ‘good ol’ days’ BF ( “before Facebook”) we never would have even dreamed of using the telephone, for example, to tell thousands of our “friends” that we’d just committed a crime or to make idiotic comments that might threaten our jobs or reputations. Those were considered pretty private things so you’d want to limit their wide distribution. But no more….

    • Hi Dr. Bob. Maybe that telephone test could be the standard by which decisions to post social media “news” are made. Would I actually pick up the phone to call (not text but actually call) people I may barely know about every single daily life event – boring or otherwise?

  3. C: An interesting and timely reminder. This does not even begin to cover the recent fascination with posting photographs from highly personal and intimate events like funerals. I experienced this phenomenon two years ago when I saw pictures of close friends at the graveside service of a family member up on Facebook. Some teens in the family had snapped candid shots of the family grieving–crying, hugging, standing over the grave of their loved one–and then decided it was a good idea to post them. I was stunned and mortified for my friends. The total lack of respect and insensitivity was appalling. Who wants photos of themselves at their most vulnerable moments spread across the electronic universe for all to see? I was embarrassed I’d even looked once I realized what they were.

    It gets worse. A friend recently told me the tragic story of close friends being murdered back in her home town. It was a well-known family in a small town. Said friend logged on Facebook to find pictures of her deceased friends–in their coffins–posted and TAGGED (and thus in her newsfeed) on Facebook. She contacted the person who posted them and asked that the photos be removed. The person did remove the images, but someone else re-posted more images several weeks later.

    I know full well that taking photos of deceased loved ones is a historic practice that was formerly common and socially acceptable. Those images were personal, private tokens of remembrance. However, this is not that era and the medium and method is no comparison. One more example of the reality of human beings behaving badly with social media.

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