Avoiding the Social Media Trap

By Dan Coulter

Social Media

For someone with Asperger Syndrome or Autism Spectrum Disorder - Level 1, common social interactions can be feel like you're a poor swimmer jumping into the deep end of the pool. And the risks of using social media can be like adding sharks to the pool.

Mistakes on social media can have devastating consequences. The good news is, you can avoid them with a bit of forethought.

Here's the problem. We went through a political correctness or “PC” era, where people tried to avoid making insensitive or offensive remarks. Now we're in the PC backlash era, where comedians and shows like Family Guy create characters who are clueless to what's PC. They make offensive jokes about race and gender and sexual orientation and more for comic effect. Sometimes to make a sarcastic point against bigoted attitudes.

It's becoming common for average folks to make such comments, and sometimes wish they hadn't.

We've all said things we wish we could take back. If you have Asperger Syndrome, you may have this happen to you routinely.

Many people now treat postings on social media such as Twitter and Facebook like face-to-face interactions. They write things they'd say to their friends in casual conversation. They expect their friends to know when they intend something to sound outrageous for comic effect. But the rest of the world may have a different interpretation.

This is not just a danger for people who have difficulty understanding social interactions, but those are the folks I'm most concerned about in this article.

Let me share a cautionary tale about how one person (who does not have Asperger Syndrome) had her life changed by a Twitter posting.

Justine Sacco was a 30 year old corporate communications director in 2013. That year, she traveled from the USA to South Africa by air. On stopovers between her flights, she made a number of snide, joking tweets to her 170 Twitter followers.

They included a tweet, from JFK airport in New York, about a “Weird German dude” passenger having body odor and needing deodorant.

From Heathrow Airport in London, she tweeted, “Chilly...bad teeth. Back in London!”

Then, just before boarding her flight to Cape Town from London, she tweeted, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

During her 11-hour flight, that tweet to her 170 Twitter followers was retweeted tens of thousands of times. It became a phenomenon. People piled on to express outrage, calling her a bigot and worse. While she was unreachable on her international flight, her friends were horrified to see what was happening. When she landed in Cape Town, the full weight of the tweet came crashing down on her. She learned of her global negative notoriety. Her extended family in South Africa were activists for racial equality. Her aunt told her, “This is not what our family stands for. And now, by association, you've almost tarnished the family.”

Later, the tweet was picked up and reported in the news media.

Sacco talked about the incident for a New York Times story by Jon Ronson. Here's an excerpt:

“'I cried out my body weight in the first 24 hours,' she told me. 'It was incredibly traumatic. You don’t sleep. You wake up in the middle of the night forgetting where you are.' She released an apology statement and cut short her vacation. Workers were threatening to strike at the hotels she had booked if she showed up. She was told no one could guarantee her safety.”

You can read the entire story in, “How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life” New York Times, February 12, 2015.

Among other after effects, Sacco was fired from her job and had to struggle to put her life back together.

You may think that what Sacco said in her tweet was inexcusable. But that's not the point of this story. The point is that something she intended as an inside joke on social media took on a life of its own. It had drastic consequences that affected her and her family and friends.

How do you know some social media comment you make won't be interpreted in a way you didn't intend and blow up in your face?

You don't. But you can tip the odds in your favor by using a tool many writers use: they rewrite before publishing. When you think of something, consider how it will be received before you post it. Could it be misinterpreted? Could you rephrase what you're saying to make your meaning more clear? Do you really want to express your thought, or is it better left unsaid?

And we can take a step back, and apply this not just to social media, but all our communications.

Evaluating what you're trying to express before you say it or it or send it sounds simple, but it's a powerful tool.

Herbert J. Taylor realized this. Taylor was president of the Club Aluminum Products company during the Great Depression of the 1930's. Facing bankruptcy and more than $400,000 in company debts, he decided to change the company by setting new ethical standards based on truth, fairness, and consideration. Herbert came up with four principles for everyone in the company to apply to everything they said and did:

1. Is it the truth?

2. Is it fair to all concerned?

3. Will it build goodwill and better friendships?

4. Will it be beneficial to all concerned?

Using this approach, Taylor helped the company change its corporate culture. Before the Great Depression ended, Club Aluminum had paid off its debts and become profitable.

Taylor was a member of the service organization Rotary International. In the 1940s, he offered his “four way test” to Rotary and they adopted it as a standard for their members' behavior. I first heard about the test in high school, when I attended a Rotary luncheon as a guest.

What if you could look into the future, and gauge how what you say and write are likely to affect you and others? These four questions could help you do just that. And, of course, make decisions that help shape things to turn out the way you want.

Kind of nice to have that kind of power at your disposal, in social media – and in everything you say or write.

About the Author - Dan Coulter is the author of thirteen videos about Asperger Syndrome and autism -- and the book, "Life in the Asperger Lane." You can find more information and articles on his website: www.coultervideo.com.

Copyright 2015 Dan Coulter Used By Permission All Rights Reserved

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