Social Media Responsibility, Fact Checking (and Racism!)

Today we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., and as such I intended to not post anything about social media, instead choosing to focus on the hope and vision that Dr. King believed in. That has changed after reading today’s blog post by Penelope Trunk, the Brazen Careerist; I have now decided to write about both social media and racism.  After reading her inflammatory post about what she considers to be a “racist rodeo” I got to the kicker…her very last line incites her users to publicly lambaste the McDonald’s corporation on Twitter, telling them that we won’t put up with racism and hate. The obvious inference here is that McDonald’s does indeed support both racism and hate by supporting the All-Star Rodeo, and event that Ms. Trunk determined to be full of racist clowns and cowgirls that are only interested in threesomes. My big problem with all of this? She didn’t bother to fact check before calling up an angry mob. I brought this to her attention in the comments section, but she seemed to shrugs it off as if facts had nothing to do with it.

In this day and age of social media people can, and do, often write and publish opinion as if it were fact. As I write this, I still do not know if McDonald’s does officially sponsor the rodeo or not, but I have reached out to them for comment. Taking a step back, to so broadly describe the rodeo as racist because of one person’s obviously emotional blog post is, in my opinion, a mistake. Social Media allows anybody to publish anything at anytime. Most people that do this have small audiences, but some, like Ms. Trunk, actually get a pretty big following. I don’t know where the breaking point is, but certainly it must be acknowledged that at a certain point a person does have a certain amount of social responsibility when they have such a large audience.She writes and gives business advice to Generation Y, and is widely held as an expert on many subjects. I think all of that is wonderful, and I wish her nothing but the best. However, the regurgitation of opinion framed to decry racism on Martin Luther King Jr. Day without doing any diligence or getting any facts from those accused is simply wrong. It is the digital equivalent of lighting the torches and storming Frankenstein’s castle…only in this case the monster is a large corporation. Racism is, in my opinion, often spread by fear and hatred, with very little room for facts or personal understanding. When I apply that same measure against Ms. Trunk’s charge to “do an act of activism” and “each Twitter today: @McDonalds Racism is not okay and neither is hate. Please stop your support of the All-Star Rodeo”, I see that she is spreading fear and hatred, with very little room for facts or personal understanding. I hate seeing such spurious activism being propagated through social media…already many people have tweeted that message, but I am guessing than none of them have done any fact checking.

I wasn’t there, so I don’t know what happened. I do know that racism happens every day in this country and all around the world, and it should not be tolerated. I also believe that posts like this actually hurt the effort to bring true change and healing to our country as it relates to race.

Penelope Trunk’s blog has over 60k unique visitors, and that is where social media and responsibility come into play. With one tweet, she not only tied McDonald’s to racism and hate, but also asked others to do the same…all without checking with a single person from McDonald’s or the rodeo as to what the facts are. I run social media programs for some of the largest and most widely recognized brands in the world, and I was incensed by her lack of professionalism or follow-up. It seems that these days it is far easier to incite anger and hate than it is to educate and understand a problem. I know that Ms. Trunk has subscribed to this theory also, at least in the past. In her post from August 2007 she says:

“But this is what I know: The core to stopping racism is to understand it, and then trust the understanding. That’s how we can be ready to call out racism as something wrong when we need to.”

I believe that also…I believe in understanding. However, throwing around accusations and then asking your followers to do the same does not promote understanding, it propagates misunderstanding and confusion.  I believe that the idea behind the message that racism will not be tolerated is spot on, but the delivery was inappropriate.

How does this tie into social media? For me it is very simple and can be summed up in just a couple of words: responsibility and accountability. Now that social media allows us to spread a message around the world with just a few key strokes, all people…authors, tweeters and retweeters, should consider what they are publishing before they do, especially when something is as charged as accusations of racism. I would strongly encourage all to do some research before they put “publish”.

I want to let you know that I did reach out to McDonald’s, the All-Star Rodeo and to Penelope Trunk. My efforts took a total of fewer than 10 minutes, but 10 minutes well spent. I wasn’t able to get in touch with anybody personally at McDonald’s, although I did find facts on their corporate website about how sponsorships and fundraising are handled. They say, “It’s important to know that approximately 85 percent of our restaurants are individually owned and operated by private business people. The decision to provide local sponsorship or donations is up to the individual franchise owner.” I have not heard back from Ms. Trunk yet, if she responds to my email I will certainly make a note of that here. The All-Star Rodeo did get back to me and sent quite a long email explaining their stance on the situation:

“All Star Rodeo Challenge was not sponsored by McDonalds it was raising money for the Ronald McDonald House Charity through autograph bandana sales at our Cowboys for Kids Pre Show of which 100% went to the Charity. Our cowboys and personnel went to local hospitals to visit sick children and brighten their day for no financial gain. In fact we raised over $15,000 for the Charity last year. In 2008 we worked with the Deanna Favre Hope Foundation and raised over $150,000 for women in Wisconsin for treatment of breast cancer. We as an organization always try to work with a charity in each market to give back to the community… We also believe in the First Amendment and freedom of speech. We believe you (referring to Penelope Trunk) have a right to your opinion, but also believe that does not necessarily make it true…many misrepresentations were made with no consideration of the truth.”

My point here is a simple: personal opinion is good…and publishing it online is great! Activism is what will continue to evolve our communities and countries into places where anybody, regardless of race, gender or religion, can thrive. Social media can be a great place to bring attention to problems…but if you are going to be making a stand, make sure that you have your facts in line before you hit the publish button.

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About the Author

Matt Singley CEO of @singleymackie. Social Media strategy & execution for Microsoft, AT&T, Hasbro & others. Father of 4. Triathlete. Afraid of spontaneous human combustion.

Comments (6)

  1. We live in interesting times. There is a very low barrier to entry into the world of online publishing. Bloggers are publishers of varying size and skill.

    I think that many bloggers appreciate the shades of gray that are afforded by not being a professional journalist. It provides cover and an excuse to not do background work.

    It is a problem and it is one of the reasons why I think it is critical that readers accept responsibility for taking a hard look at the validity and accuracy of what they read.

  2. I was one of the first people to retweet Penelope Trunk’s call-to-action last night. I reasoned that since her ticket stub said “McDonald’s” then her belief that the event was sponsored by McDonald’s corporation was accurate. It didn’t occur to me to consider that McDonald’s is a franchise licenser and I didn’t take the time to examine it too closely.

    And to be honest, I got all riled up over the Obama skit. ;)

    I completely agree with you. Reasoned personal opinion is one thing. Activism entails an entirely different level of personal responsibility — both as a leader and as a follower.

    Thanks for the reminder.

  3. My mantra at work is read, re-read, verify and verify again. And now with social media, where you can go viral in a matter of seconds, one has to multiply that mantra by 1000. There is a measure of responsibility that people must have when communicating online especially when their following is that extensive. I am always so aware that anyone…ANYONE can read my blog and how closely linked my reputation is to it. But maybe some people care more about hits and popularity than reputation and integrity. My observation with the McDonald’s thing, cause I do follow her blog, was not that the company was racist but that one has to be so cognisant of what is happening out there with your brand and who is using your brand where and for what, and one cannot always control what happens at events your brand may be directly or indirectly aligned with. Whether the act in question was racist is nebulous, but to brand the entire franchise as racist was a bit much. And worse to incite followers to boycott the brand…ummm. Thank you for the follow up cause I did read the post in question.

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