Unfiltered Friday: Outrage and Accountability in Social Media

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Public outcry and reaction to something we disagree with has found a new home on social media. The instant reaction to a public figure - whether it be a sports figure, actor, politician or business leader - is to grab one’s phone, open Twitter, and jam as much vitriol into public consumption that a character limit allows.

Such is the time in which we live, and for some in the golf space it has become less about growing the game as much as it is a public shaming. While not mutually exclusive on the surface, the line between the two has become blurred.

Heads on Spikes

Allow me to borrow from a tired internet cliche for a second. A Google search of the phrase “fired for social media comments” returns over 83 million results. These are examples of people spouting off on their social platform of choice about a topic that incites reaction. Employers catch wind of the comments, and depending on their severity make the “safe” decision to terminate the employee.

As a Game of Thrones fan still coping with the conclusion of the series, this practice is akin to placing a head on a spike to deter others from making the same poor decision. It is setting a public example in response to a public action.

This swift action is quickly becoming the preferred method of discipline in corporate offices as opposed to a progressive approach (i.e, verbal warning, followed by written warning, then termination). Allowing “repeat offenders” to remain on staff contributes to a toxic work environment, especially if the employee has a wide public reach. This makes sense, and having worked in a corporate setting most of my career, I understand the logic.

But should this be the immediate reaction when someone says something we disagree with in the media? What prompts that reaction, and what is the larger end goal?

Protectors of the Realm

Golf fans on social media have created a community — dubbed Golf Twitter among their faithful — that started as a group of lighthearted viewers enjoying a tournament on TV and has evolved into something much larger.

Brands are taking notice of this community, especially as consumers make purchasing decisions based on what their favorite influencers share. The results of golf tournaments have been impacted and penalties have been called on players due to the super sleuths on Twitter noticing a rules violation. Memes and images shared online become t-shirts and posters seen in galleries in the hope of being captured by a TV camera or the player it depicts.

Thanks to social media fans have become the biggest part of the game who, in many instances, serve as judge, jury and executioner on how golf “should” look.

The most recent example at the time of this writing involves Hank Haney and comments he made during a satellite radio broadcast with co-host, Steve Johnson. Discussing the 2019 US Women’s Open, the two offered a brief exchange to kick off their broadcast that included Haney suggesting he could not name six current LPGA golfers. The two also implied picking a Korean golfer to win would be a “safe bet”, presumably in reference to continued tournament success among LPGA players of Korean descent. The comment many deem to be most cringe-worthy was Haney’s suggestion that a majority of players had the surname of “Lee.”

Haney was later suspended by SIRIUSXM and the PGA Tour, whose name is also attached to the show.

Whether Haney and Johnson’s comments were racist or sexist are open for interpretation depending on your definition of each term. The resulting backlash of the comments, however, was very clear: people wanted their heads on a silver platter.

What is the Goal?

The volume of articles and opinion pieces on this example grew by the hour. So, too, did the number of tweets and other social media reaction. LPGA golfers condemned the comments. Golf journalists and bloggers threw their hats in the ring. Words like “disqusting”, “abhorrent”, “racist” and “sexist” sprouted in headlines linking to golf websites and beyond. In fact, the LPGA’s commissioner, Michael Whan, offered his own take on the situation on Twitter:

Whan’s comments were as necessary as they were predictable — and that’s good. His is a position that requires him to respond. For everyone else, it’s a choice made for very different reasons.

The easy thing to do in situations like this would be to become outraged and write an incendiary headline. It would be easy to condemn the person who made the comments, lumping him/her into a category such as racist, sexist, or xenophobic. It would be easy to immediately banish the offender from the sport, as if doing so actually solved the problem instead of sweeping them aside out of sight and mind.

As easy as it was for Haney to make the comments he made, it’s was just as easy for everyone else to follow what has become the standard operating procedure for social media outrage.

The more difficult thing to do would be to take a step back and think about why people say the things they do. As irresponsible as an individual may be in a moment, it is the opportunity for others to do the responsible thing of understanding the root cause. There is a difference between a quick reaction and a correct reaction, even amid highly emotional moments.

Taking this approach doesn’t mean we are condoning or accepting actions that are hurtful, hateful, or otherwise detrimental to a business or social norm. In fact, it is the opposite. It is showing that we are a society that understands people are unpredictable, make mistakes, use poor judgement and react in ridiculous ways that validate we are imperfect humans.

Jumping on social media to offer an immediate reaction to something we see, hear or feel is not wrong as long as that reaction doesn’t compound hatred. It is also irresponsible of us to create a problem to satisfy our own agenda using another person as the scapegoat. The worst use of social media is to take an extremist opinion, calling for the public shaming of an individual for the sole purpose of being the “hottest” take. Doing so says much more about us than the issue we hope to solve.

There is no doubt that media impacts the lives of real people. That is true for both sides of the proverbial coin. There will always be hate in the world, and there are far too few editors to go around. Change is possible, but it takes more effort than knee-jerk reactions.

If we want to band together to change the game for the better, we must be open to forgiving those who will inevitably falter or say something we don’t agree with. We need to listen to what is being said and ask questions to understand instead of writing the most extreme article we can to get more clicks than our competitor.