Editors Note: This post has been updated to clarify Twitter comments by DDot Omen and to provide attribution to original sources
After a shooting that took the lives of nine people at a historic black church in South Carolina, Hyley DiBona tweeted racist comments, starting a social media firestorm that ultimately led to her termination from the nation's largest movie theater chain.
One might be tempted to minimize her transgressions because they're "just tweets," but we should remember that Twitter is a publishing platform--and publishing is a privilege, whether it's a newspaper column, a blog post, or a single tweet. Companies need to understand the responsibility that comes with the ability to communicate a message to a global audience through their employees.
DiBona's "message" included offensive statements and a photo she took that disparaged minority moviegoers. This prompted people to contact her employer to alert them of her inappropriate conduct and one Twitter user, DDot Omen, organized a boycott: "RT if you won't be spending any $ at @RegalMovies until @HyleyLowly is no longer an employee."
Regal Entertainment Group's response was quick and severe: That afternoon, it fired DiBona in a statement that read, "Her comments are offensive and she has engaged in behavior that violates everything which Regal stands for." Regal Entertainment decided to tweet her termination, mentioning her personally, rather than issue a public statement through traditional media outlets, which illustrates both the power and the intimacy of social media. (It has since been retweeted 6,000 times.)
The fact that DiBona had foolishly challenged people to contact her employer because her "job had nothing to do with [her] Twitter [account]" lent her public dismissal an irresistible irony. Reveling in her downfall would be a familiar reaction: After Justine Sacco was fired for making a joke about AIDS in 2013, Sam Biddle (then editor of Valleywag), who had posted her tweet online and likely caused it to trend worldwide, told The New York Times, "The fact that she was a P.R. chief made it delicious. It's satisfying to be able to say, 'O.K., let's make a racist tweet by a senior IAC employee count this time.' And it did. I'd do it again."
It's possible that DiBona's (and Sacco's) arrogant flaunting of privilege angered people as much their racist comments. If DiBona believed that she would be protected by a system that excludes those she mocks, then the desire to take her down represented a moral fight against an unjust hierarchy. Even if she deserved her outcome, critics of Twitter #hashtag activism say that it has morphed from a social movement into an internet lynch mob, fueled by people a little too gleeful to deliver punishment to offenders.
Just as often as social media can be used to mobilize against an injustice, it can be used as a tool by well-meaning people who overreact or (in the worse cases) who want to feel righteous and powerful. It's exactly this kind of disconnect that gave rise to our current legal system, because mobs are demonstrably ineffective at delivering accuracy, consistency, proportionality, or justice.
Maybe someday there will be better trust and permission systems in place to help us tell the difference between innocent remarks and truly malicious intent, but until then, companies should consider every employee an ambassador of their brand and respect their audience enough to listen to and deliver what their customers want.