December 30, 2013

Disclaimers on Blogs and Social Media Accounts

The museum of natural history in NYC has color...
The museum of natural history in NYC has colored boxes which parallel tags like 'disputed' on enwiki. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
In the business world, it is very common to see individuals' blogs or social media accounts bearing disclaimers like, "Opinions expressed here are my own and do not reflect those of my employer." And this is not something unique to business. I work in education, and most of my personal social media accounts include similar disclaimers. Human Resources does not explicitly require it, but they strongly encourage it. And for the most part, I think it makes sense.

The use of such disclaimers help to provide an individual employee to make it clear that what he or she says in that space should not be interpreted as reflecting the views of his or her employer because it is little more than his or her personal opinion. Employers generally like it too because it gives them some room for claiming that the individual employee is expressing his or her personal views only and not the views of the employer.

In practice, however, such disclaimers probably do not provide nearly as much protection as people might suspect. After all, there are many cases where it becomes difficult to argue that the individual is not functioning, at least to some degree, as a representative of his or her employer.


While reading a recent post at The Morning Heresy, Paul Fidalgo's excellent blog at the Center for Inquiry, I came across a disclaimer that said the following:
Linking to a story or webpage does not imply endorsement by Paul or CFI. Not every use of quotation marks is ironic or sarcastic, but it often is.
Paul is the Communications Director at the Center for Inquiry (CFI), and that his blog is hosted in such a manner as to be embedded on the CFI website. It certainly looks like an official part of the CFI. So why would such a disclaimer be used here?

If Paul were to link to a website or blog in his daily post that some found objectionable, he would almost certainly hear about it. Some would leave nasty comments on his blog, others would email him, and many others would bash him on Twitter. I think we've all seen this happen many times, not with Paul in particular, but with many others. No big deal, right? Paul has a right to express his opinion, and others have the right to criticize the opinion he expresses. Fair enough. The problem is that it almost never seems to stop there.

It is one thing for an individual to face this sort of thing, but it rarely stops there in cases where the blogger's employer can be identified. Suppose Paul were to link to a source some did not like and then refuse to cave in to demands that he remove the link, apologize, and whatever else those who were outraged might demand. What do you suppose would happen at that point? The outraged would go over his head and whine to his employers. We would end up seeing something that might remind us of what happened when Dr. Ron Lindsay made comments some did not like at Women in Secularism 2. When Dr. Lindsay stood his ground, the complaints went to the Center for Inquiry's board.

If you are thinking that this was different because Dr. Lindsay made his remarks while functioning in his professional capacity as the CEO of the CFI, I'll agree. But don't you think that Paul's blog, despite his best efforts and the disclaimer, would be interpreted by those outraged as inseparable from his work as CFI Communications Director? If you were to take a screen shot of it, it would certainly look like it was coming from the CFI.

Is it any wonder that some people in positions of status within the atheist, skeptic, and/or secular communities have multiple blogs or social media accounts, some of which may be anonymous? Such is just one small part of the price we pay for indulging the outraged.

But What About Accountability?

Wait just a second! If it wasn't for the outraged, how would anybody be held accountable for what they say online? I'd like to offer three things for your consideration on this point.

First, when someone says something some find objectionable online, those who find it objectionable have every right to criticize and refute it. The can use their various platforms to call attention to it, shout it down, and get others riled up about it. They can oppose the objectionable ideas by offering their own alternatives, and if their ideas are preferred, those they found objectionable will likely fade into obscurity. This should be sufficient in most cases. While some clearly desire to go beyond this and believe they have the right to punish others, this is questionable at best.

Second, in cases where a statement some deem objectionable was clearly made while the individual was performing the functions of his or her job, complaining to the individual's employer may be warranted. When you hear the waitress mutter, "Fucking Spic" when you ask for another cup of coffee, you ought to feel justified in letting her employer know about it. And when someone uses his or her blog or social media account while functioning as a representative of an agency and says something you don't like, you might consider informing the employer about it. The questions you should ask yourself here are whether this individual was really functioning in that capacity and whether what they said warrants this action.

Third, in a situation where you encounter something you consider objectionable, I'd encourage you to stop and think through your options before reacting. There are probably things you could do that will make the situation worse, and there may be some things you could do to improve it. When I am in these situations, I often ask myself what sort of outcome I would prefer. For example, would I rather see the individual understand my point of view (i.e., why I found the statement objectionable) and gain some insight into why others might also do so, or am I really just after revenge? I'm unlikely to think clearly in the heat of the moment, so I try to give myself a chance to calm down before I react. If just want to punish the person, am I willing to accept the fact that he or she will likely learn little more than hate for people who share my views?

I understand why we use disclaimers like this, why we consider them necessary, and why our employers want us to use them. I really wish they weren't necessary and that more of us were capable and willing of functioning as rational adults. But since this seems unlikely to happen anytime soon, I just hope that we will gradually become less likely to appease those who peddle outrage for their own gain and more thoughtful about our role in it.