Nancy Rothbard and Amanda Gailey on Social Media's 'Hidden Audience'

Just one post to a social media site has the power to reach millions. But when we post, most of us are just thinking of, and writing for, a few people — a small audience of family, friends or the people we regularly interact with on each platform.

Unfortunately, the “invisible audience” — the people you didn’t know were looking, or who you didn’t know could look — often only reveals itself after an ill-timed, careless or incendiary post blows up in your face. On the small scale, you may have to apologize to a contact or co-worker, or deal with some other type of negative feedback. But a growing number of cases are showing how one careless tweet or Facebook post of questionable taste can lead to far grimmer consequences, including losing your job or becoming the focus of public shaming by a “digital mob” of strangers.

“Someone will expose or try to shame someone based on a tweet that might have been terribly misguided and poorly executed, but if you look at other things they posted, you can tell that that’s not really what they meant,” said Amanda Gailey, a professor of English at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. She specializes in digital text editing and teaches a class called “Being Human in a Digital Age.” “It’s really tragic to see someone’s career getting destroyed over something like that. Once you open up that spigot of public shaming, you don’t know what can come out, and you can’t turn it off.”

Gailey and Wharton management professor Nancy Rothbard discussed the circumstances around such public shaming and outlined strategies to contain it on the Knowledge at Wharton show on Wharton Business Radio on SiriusXM channel 111. (Listen to the podcast at the top of this page.)

The two experts recalled a recent New York Times Magazine article in which author Jon Ronson highlighted among others the case of Justine Sacco, who in late 2013 lost her job over an ill-considered tweet. Sacco, then global head of communications for New York City-based digital media firm IAC, tweeted from London’s Heathrow airport on way to Cape Town, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” Sam Biddle, editor at ValleyWag, a Gawker Media blog, re-tweeted that to his 15,000 followers. From there on, Sacco’s post went viral to become the No. 1 worldwide trend on Twitter by the time she landed in Cape Town 11 hours later.

“Once you open up that spigot of public shaming, you don’t know what can come out, and you can’t turn it off.” –Amanda Gailey

‘An Age-Old Vigilante Mob Mentality’

Postings meant for one’s closed circle of friends and family can take ill-fated turns because “we really pay a lot more attention to the visible audience rather than the invisible audience,” said Rothbard, who recently wrote an article on the topic for Psychology Today and is author of a paper titled, “Social Media or Social Minefield? Surviving in the New Cyberspace Era.” “It is just a natural cognitive bias that we have — to pay attention to what is highlighted for us. What we then forget about is the invisible audience. So when we post things, we are really not aware of how that might come off to a broader group.”

According to Gailey, over the past several years, “people have gotten more and more acclimated to posting what might have been considered mundane, unimportant and private thoughts online.” At the same time, they are surprised when something is taken out of context or misunderstood, she noted. In addition, many people also don’t understand how the privacy controls on the various social media platforms work; consequently, their updates may be visible to a much wider audience without their knowledge, she added.

Rothbard has researched how attempts to create boundaries on social media can impact people’s professional relationships. She noted that when using social media, people aren’t able to pick up on the verbal or nonverbal cues that may cause them to adjust their behavior or tone when interacting in person. “[Whereas] we have this media that is so powerful in terms of broadcasting our ideas to large audiences, we don’t have the cues that we have in real life,” she said.

Likewise, many people in the social media audience don’t seem to think out their fast and furious reactions. “It’s just an age-old, vigilante mob mentality,” said Gailey. “[The public shaming] takes on a life of its own where it becomes a sort of sport where people will take turns piling on. The responses can very quickly become increasingly aggressive and violent and far surpass the initial supposed offense.”

“[Whereas] we have this media that is so powerful in terms of broadcasting our ideas to large audiences, we don’t have the cues that we have in real life.” –Nancy Rothbard

Gailey suggested some questions that people can ask themselves before strongly reacting to something they read on social media: “Is the behavior you are attacking actually harmful? Is the target influential — a public person or a corporation or just a random person? Are you absolutely sure you understand the context of the comment? Are you absolutely sure that the behavior is indicative of the person’s general sensibilities? In a lot of these cases, they are just not,” she said.

Competence vs. Integrity

How can you recover from mistakes made online? Rothbard said the literature on trust shows that when people apologize for something, it helps to portray their gaffe as a “competence error” rather than an “integrity violation.” Recalling former U.S. president Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, she said that people who saw it as an integrity violation had a hard time forgiving him. “[Clinton] cleverly framed that as a competency error rather than an integrity error. Whether people believed that or not is anyone’s guess.”

According to Gailey, shaming somebody for offensive comments on social media may have some “social justice utility,” but she called for caution in treading into that territory. Here, she separated “shaming” from “exposure.” She explained that at times, an organization or a group of people may reveal what individuals say online to raise public consciousness about such behavior, rather than to punish or humiliate individuals.

Today’s students are more sophisticated in their understanding of privacy than some older people are, said Gailey, drawing insights from her class. “They have come of age after lot of cautionary tales,” she said. “They have learned not to post every photo from the party they went to. Students didn’t know all this five years ago.”