When is it acceptable journalistic practice to "surface" old social media posts?

Journalists should not waste time scrolling through a decade of old Facebook postings with the sole purpose of trying to find something offensive

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Earlier this month, an article on Bloomberg Law surfaced purportedly anti-semitic facebook postings by Leif Olson. Of course, the postings were in no way anti-semitic, and indeed were mocking anti-semites. The report was false and misleading. Since publication, Bloomberg Law has refused to retract the article. Instead, it has issued several revisions and modifications that make the story incomprehensible. I can only hope that the purported reporter, Ben Penn, is being investigated, and will face discipline. (He has not tweeted since the original story was published).

My goal here is not to further excoriate Bloomberg's indefensible publication. Rather, I will focus on an element of Penn's story that has not gotten much attention. He wrote:

"A review of a decade of Olson's Facebook posts shows that he usually promotes his Christian faith and conservative views."

This statement is stunning. A reporter spent countless hours scrolling through ten years of Facebook posts. How much time did this task take? Do journalism schools now offer classes in timeline scrolling? Hashtag analysis? Sarcasm detection? Deleted tweet recovery?

Penn did not perform this grueling search as part of a general profile of Leif. Rather, Penn had a specific goal in mind: search and destroy. He was looking for something– anything–that could be deemed offensive. (Penn utterly failed on that front). I would surmise that Penn also performed a similar search-and-destroy mission for other Trump Administration officials. That he didn't write about them suggests he didn't find anything to use. The best he could find were Leif's non-anti-semitic posts.

There is another reason why Penn's statement was stunning. Journalists routinely complain about being forced to produce vast amounts of content under tight deadlines. Reporter often call me and request a quote instantly, because they are facing a deadline–whether or not I've had time to consider the issue! I get it. Social media has transformed the news landscape. The first to publish gets the glory.

Given these constraints, why would a reporter spend countless hours aimlessly scrolling through Facebook posts with the sole purpose of surfacing offensive tweets? There are so many other useful tasks a reporter can perform. Moreover, why would any competent editor at Bloomberg approve of such a task? Note to Bloomberg: this failure belongs also to your editorial team–they should face discipline as well as Penn.

Recently the Des Moines Register faced a similar situation. The Washington Post offered this summary:

The case revolved around Carson King, a 24-year-old casino security guard who gained unexpected fame after he appeared in the background of ESPN's "College GameDay" on Sept. 14 holding a sign requesting donations for his "Busch Light Supply." When strangers quickly sent him more than $600 on Venmo, he decided instead to donate the money to a local children's hospital. Soon, Anheuser-Busch and Venmo announced matching donations as his fundraising topped $1 million.

That's when the Register began working on a profile, and Calvin learned of two racist tweets King had sent when he was 16 years old. Before the newspaper could publish its profile, though, King held a news conference Tuesday evening apologizing for the racist jokes and revealing that Anheuser-Busch had cut ties with him. King said Calvin had brought the tweets to his attention, though he said he didn't blame the newspaper.

Was the Register on a search-and-destroy mission, like Ben Penn was at Bloomberg? No. The paper explains that it was trying to write a balanced profile of Calvin that unexpectedly turned up a few inappropriate tweets:

Some of you wonder why journalists think it's necessary to look into someone's past. It's essential because readers depend on us to tell a complete story.

In this case, our initial stories drew so much interest that we decided to write a profile of King, to help readers understand the young man behind the handmade sign and the outpouring of donations to the children's hospital. The Register had no intention to disparage or otherwise cast a negative light on King.

In doing backgrounding for such a story, reporters talk to family, friends, colleagues or professors. We check court and arrest records as well as other pertinent public records, including social media activity. The process helps us to understand the whole person.

This explanation seems reasonable. Calvin was thrust into the spotlight, and the local paper decided to figure out who he was. This task stands in stark contrast with Ben Penn's facebook crusade: his sole purpose was find bad stuff on Leif. Bloomberg would never have run a story if Olson's social media was clean.

The Register also explains why it decided to write about the old tweets, once they were discovered:

Once we have obtained information in background checks, how do we decide what to publish?

It weighed heavily on our minds that the racist jokes King tweeted, which we never published, were disturbing and highly inappropriate. On the other hand, we also weighed heavily that the tweets were posted more than seven years ago, when King was 16, and he was highly remorseful.

We ultimately decided to include a few paragraphs at the bottom of the story. As

This analysis is incomplete. On the one hand, the tweets were inappropriate. On the other hand, the tweets were posted when King was 16–not even old enough to form a legal contract! Why, then did the paper opt for disclosure? The editor does not say.

Regrettably, the norm today is predictable: whenever anyone is thrust into the spotlight, for even the most insignificant reasons, an army of social media spelunkers climb through every crevice of the insta-celebrity's timeline to find something–anything–to embarrass him. Conservatives do it to liberals. And liberals do it to conservatives. This circular firing squad needs to end–eventually, everyone can be cancelled. He that is without without social media sin among you, cast the first tweet.

What, then is the relevance of old, offensive tweets? To be sure, these posts shed some light into a person's views at an early juncture of his life. But I am generally skeptical they provide much insight into how they currently approach the world–especially when the postings are old, and were published before a person's professional career began.

How should our society weigh these old postings? I do not propose some sort of statute of limitations, in which past writings are off-limits. Rather, I suggest a different test: when a person's established body of work is entirely inconsistent with, and indeed in tension with earlier postings, such nascent musings should be entitled to less weight. Under the opposite rule, everyone will be forever tainted by their worst moments. Our society should afford those aspiring for higher status the opportunity to grow, reflect, and recant.

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  1. When is it acceptable journalistic practice to “surface” old social media posts?

    Answer: When it is relevant, maybe? Because it is not at all clear to me the posts made by a 16-year old Master King have any relevance whatsoever to the 24-year old Mister King’s fundraising for the Iowa Children’s Hospital. Really, searching through 10-years of tweets?

    Frankly, the Iowa Register Editors displayed spectacularly bad judgment. One would hope they heard from Readership about it. They (Iowa Register) are not alone in displaying spectacularly bad judgment to the general public.

  2. This might be a problem now, but our grandchildren won’t have a problem with it.

    They’ll know that errybody has a couple of skeletons in the internet closet, and won’t be so freaked out when these things arise.

    1. You’ve got a good point. Witch hunts propagate best when the targets are maybe 3-4% or so of the population, maybe a little more if it’s confined to some despised minority.

      Once it gets past that people start to see friends and extended family being taken down, and a reaction sets in.

    2. I was saying that 15 years ago. People were telling kids, “Be careful what you put on the internet, it’s there forever, and employers will see that you used bad language or posted nekkid or whatever.”

      And I was like, “Bah, 15 years from now everybody will understand that everybody did stupid stuff when they were younger and nobody will care.”

      Instead, people are like, “See, they told us not to put stupid shit on the internet. You should have listened.”

      1. “Everybody did stupid stuff” and “everybody put it on the Internet” are not the same thing.
        Maybe in another 15 years, they will be, but not yet.

  3. You picture the journalist spending hours searching through a decade of social media, but I picture that effort being outsourced to some english-speaking country with low wages. That would explain the lack of appreciation for the context surrounding these posts.

    1. I just assumed there is some program/script that does the scanning. Or aggregates all posts into one document that can be viewed quickly and searched via the ctrl+f function.

  4. I feel sorry for kids today and in the future, and I am so thankful I grew up before social media, everyone walking around with cameras and video recorders in their hands to capture every embarrassing moment for all time, etc. I think I was a pretty good kid, relatively speaking. But I can think of several times as a teenager (usually involving alcohol) where I am extremely grateful that I wasn’t in an era where my drunken state would be recorded and put online for the rest of time. And if I would’ve had Facebook or Twitter where every stupid or crass comment, joke, or put down was posted online to be unearthed when I was an adult? Yikes.

    So far, my kids do not have social media, and I share these types of stories to encourage them to stay away from it and to just enjoy the moment without putting every banal thought or picture online. I hope they continue to take my advice as they grow older (the massive amount of lost productivity from being on social media — or even in the VC comments, lol — is also a real thing). Who knows if they will. But I hope that the young generation turns its back on so-called social media, at least until they’re adults (though I have little expectation that this will happen).

    Thank God for growing up in the 80s. What a fun era to be a kid.

    1. Maybe your kids won’t post on social media themselves but their actions and statements will still end up on social media.

      Iphones, cameras in McDonalds, copcams, dashcams, schoolcams, etc., will be sure to capture for interneternity their adolescent dumbness.

    2. I printed out a summary of this story posted on The Heavy, and shared it with my daughter’s Girl Scout troop. They are in 7th grade and have smartphones, but no social media (that any of us grownups know about) … the girls, most of whom are not white, pretty quickly apprehended the silliness of blaming an adult for what he said when he was 16. I tried to draw each of them out individually, and they were still unanimous on that point. In fact they pushed back at my very mild statement that “hey, it’s always possible he is still that guy.”

      I think the kids are alright, though it remains to be seen what happens when they hit the college reeducation camps.

      1. Other than Anhauser-Busch’s decision to drop King, it seems like the overwhelming reaction has been support of King and recognition that the Des Moines Register did something stupid and pointless. The reaction to the paper is overwhelmingly negative. The Iowa Make A Wish foundation is supporting him, the governor declared Carson King Day, a local(ish?) brewery is replacing the beer, an Iowa Oktoberfest decided not to search Busch Light, etc.

        Maybe the kids are alright, and the rest of us might be getting there as well.

  5. I have yet to see very many examples of the Right doing this to the Left outside of tit-for-tat situations.

    1. Came here to say this. “Cancel culture” is a product of the Left, which traffics in outrage and offense and collects apologies like baseball cards.

    2. “I have yet to see very many examples of the Right doing this to the Left”

      There was the McCarthy era. But nobody ever heard of that, so I guess you’re right.

      1. Since we’re discussing surfacing old social media posts specifically, could you remind me what McCarthy’s twitter username was?

        1. @TailGunnerJoe, of course!

        2. “Since we’re discussing surfacing old social media posts specifically”

          In today’s lesson, we learn that “social media” and “Twitter” are different things that don’t mean the identical same thing. In ye olden tymes, media of a social nature didn’t involve the modern electronics. You had to go places and meet people in actual meatspace, or write things down on paper and send them to your intended recipient.

  6. Not to nitpick,really, but a small nit annoys me :-O
    spend countless hours aimlessly scrolling through Facebook posts with the sole purpose of surfacing offensive tweets?
    Ya can’t be doing something aimlessly with a sole purpose.

    1. Well shucks, I guess my blockquote tags were aimlessly typoed or something.

    2. You can, it’s just extremely inefficient. Bogosort, where you take an unsorted list, arrange it randomly, and check to see if it’s sorted in order to sort it, has no aim (there is no direction to follow) but it does have a purpose.

  7. You’re conflating two things:

    1) searching through archives of social media, and
    2) doing so with the aim of destroying the subject of the investigation.

    Your opposition to #2 has led you to the conclusion that #1 is something that shouldn’t be done. This is nonsense.

    We tell young people to be careful when they use social media, because potential employers may observe things in social media history that causes them to determine that a job candidate is unsuitable. This is no less true when the “job” is political in nature.

    In short, the way you behave in public is fair game for journalists to examine. For people who seek influence, even some private behavior becomes fair game.

    1. You’re skipping the context of the two examples. This man wasn’t seeking employment but rather to raise money for charity, where the incentive to hire an employee that doesn’t have XYZ in his background, isn’t there. Further, the investigation wasn’t done by the prospective recipient of the charity, but by a 3rd party just looking for a clicks and eyeballs. And in the case of Olson, unless you missed it, the old FB posts were sarcasm taken out of context to make it *appear* anti-semitic, and done with malice by the reporter.

      Lastly, only *some* people tell their kids to be careful on social media, and legally and morally, kids are held to a lower standard of accountability.

      1. “You’re skipping the context of the two examples.”

        More correctly, I’m not seeing a case for why the context would matter.

        ” And in the case of Olson, unless you missed it, the old FB posts were sarcasm taken out of context to make it *appear* anti-semitic, and done with malice by the reporter.”

        Uh, yeah. Go back up a couple of posts to what I wrote. See how I distinguish between #1 and #2? You’re suggesting I’m defending #2. I’m not. I’m defending #1. See how those are different things? And I say that confusing the two is a mistake? Yeah? Well, you’re making a mistake.

        “only *some* people tell their kids to be careful on social media”

        So, some parents neglect to properly inform their children. True enough, if not even vaguely relevant.

        “legally and morally, kids are held to a lower standard of accountability.”
        OK. And? How is that even vaguely relevant? The only kids in this story are ones you just dragged into it.

        1. Context matters. It always matters, and in all things. Specifically it matters here, with intent, and with culpability of the people who made the supposedly offensive social media posts. Are you unaware that the beer guy was 16 when he made the “offense post”? I guess so. He’s 24 now. I’ve seen it reported as a 7-8 year old tweet. That sir, is context.

          Yea, don’t backtrack. Please state where YOU made a distinction that you don’t support example #2. It’s not in your comment. Further, you entirely appear to support #2 because you say that your personal life if fair game if you’re in the political sphere, which was the case in #2.

          Plus, your logic is still flawed, because you can be against examples #1 & #2, and for different reasons.

          Lastly, society, and the legal system as a reflection of our shared morality, says childhood is a mitigating factor due to immaturity. Therefore, if society says we shouldn’t hold children fully culpable for crimes they commit, even though they are taught not to steal. By extension, we should likewise not hold children fully culpable for tweets the likes of which we can hold adults accountable for. That said, I don’t know if you can may a law about it, but the OP was only asking about general moral guidelines.

          1. ” Please state where YOU made a distinction that you don’t support example #2.”

            I never wrote anything that supports #2. You can try to work around that (and obviously will, because it’s either that or admit you made a mistake and doubled down on it) but it’s still true.

            “Lastly, society, and the legal system as a reflection of our shared morality, says childhood is a mitigating factor due to immaturity”

            Are you a child? If so, I won’t hold your immaturity against you.

            1. Ah, so when your ignorance about the beer guy being 16 comes out when he made the supposedly offensive comments, you resort to insults. Now, how mature is that of you, eh?

              Example #2, Leif Olson, is an adviser to the Department of Labor. He is a public figure, who is seeking to influence policy. Thus, by the guideline you yourself propose in your original comment, his old social media is fair game. I quote: “the way you behave in public is fair game for journalists to examine. For people who seek influence, even some private behavior becomes fair game”.

              1. “Ah, so when your ignorance about the beer guy being 16”

                The beer guy is 24. 24 is 50% more than 16. That the kind of “ignorance” you’re talking about?

                I’m going to ignore the rest of your drivel. Have a nice day anyway.

  8. The terrible part of the whole affair is that not only did Anheuser-Busch drop their support for the charity, they did it before there was any controversy.

    1. No, they dropped their offer of a year of free beer for Carson King, and apparent plans to have him endorse their product by putting his face on cans. They still made their promised donation to the Stead Children’s Hospital.

      A local indie brewery stepped up to provide the free beer, which is a win-win because Busch was going to give him Busch Light…

      1. I should have said further, since I think they were going to stop matching it. I could be wrong though.

        1. As I understand it, they either capped their match or contribution after a certain date (because there’s no deadline on Venmo donations) or pledged a flat amount. Either way, they did not reduce their contribution after the fact, aside from taking away the beer and whatever future plans they had in mind for King (“no further association with him”)

      2. “A local indie brewery stepped up to provide the free beer, which is a win-win because Busch was going to give him Busch Light…”

        Because that’s what he asked for. (well, what he asked for money to buy)

    2. “they did it before there was any controversy.”

      My understanding, which may well be incorrect, is that they did it after being contacted by the reporter for their comments on the tweets. So while it might have been before the controversy, much like with King’s press conference it was an attempt to get ahead of the controversy.

      Which now appears might have been misguided. King seems to be coming out of this looking a whole lot better than either the Des Moines Register (including the reporter, who has his own share of questionable posts) or Anhauser-Busch. Maybe people are realizing it’s silly to get worked up over things 16 year olds say on the internet.

  9. “When is it acceptable journalistic practice to “surface” old social media posts?”

    When it generates clicks. Like social media, journalism is a business. You are the product. Of course, this is less true for some of the bigger paywalled papers, where you are the customer and get to read what you want to hear.

    “Given these constraints, why would a reporter spend countless hours aimlessly scrolling through Facebook posts with the sole purpose of surfacing offensive tweets”

    I’m sure that with the right knowledge and parameters, this search can be done in seconds, and “journalists” have access to this ability.

    1. Presumably you did not intend to imply that any conduct which generates revenue for a business is by definition “acceptable.”

      1. It’s acceptable to the guy spending the money.

  10. The Register’s explanation could fertilize all of Iowa’s farms. Iowa has a lot of farms.

  11. The problem, it seems to me, is not Reporters spending hours crawling through social media postings. It is our absurd obsession with proving our social consciousness and worth by condemning any utterance that can in anyway be colored as “racist,“ or some other “ist,“ as if a single utterance of an ill chosen phrase or word somehow offsets every other aspect of a persons’s life, actions or accomplishments. It is as if we are obsessed with earning “woke points” and proving our own open mindedness by condemning others for even minor or ancient missteps. And it will not stop until we as a society decide not to overreact to every single utterance, but the focus on actions that are truly significant.

  12. Speaking of publication standards . . . does the author have any relationship with Mr. Olson, particularly one that might incline selection of this particular incident for remark?

    1. Sorry Rev., but the truth is the truth, regardless of who utters it.

      1. Not to idiot leftists like “Rev”.

  13. Hang onto your hat. This kind of dirt should be relatively easy to automate by a reporterbot. I’m thinking of a piece of code, perhaps with a bit of AI built in, that automatically scans the net for anything sensational enough to attract clicks, and clicks become revenue. No human reporter is necessary. When red meat is found, the date of its origin is irrelevant.

    Like it or not, AI and bots are an inevitable portion of future journalism. That can include counterbots that detect machine generated crap and attempt to suppress it. And anticounterbots … blah blah.

    Think of the old Mad Magazine column “Spy Versus Spy”

  14. The Des Moines Register reporter stated that the tweets “surfaced.” This is a disingenuous way of implying that the reporter didn’t go looking for them — they magically appeared. It’s all the tweets’ fault.

    I note that you say that the reporters “surfaced” the tweets, using “surface” as a transitive verb. This has the virtue of revealing what’s really going on. Still, rather than pervert the English language, it would be better to say “revealed” or “reported.”

    1. It would be best if the article said the reporter “looked for and found one or two tweets that . . . “

    1. Iowahawk tweeted: Old – don’t pick fights with those who by ink by the barrel. New – don’t pick fights when 200 million people have access to the same search box as you.

  15. Remember kids, if there’s any possibility you ever said something that can make you look bad, keep the money and buy the beer instead.

  16. “On the one hand, the tweets were inappropriate. On the other hand, the tweets were posted when King was 16–not even old enough to form a legal contract!”

    If he had raped a 12-year-old instead, his record would be sealed. But THIS was important enough to go public with.

    Those of you with time on your hands, PLEASE start collecting media names and searching their timelines and posts. Who can survive a fine tooth comb search? I couldn’t. Once, when I was at band camp ….

    1. “If he had raped a 12-year-old instead, his record would be sealed.”

      If he had raped a 12-year-old, he’d have been tried as an adult, and still serving time, and not appearing in the background of sports programming, asking for beer money.

  17. Better question is when would journalists publish nude pictures of their grandmother. Answer: Whenever it would increase their circulation or increase their viewers.

    1. “It’s always nice to see you, dear, but I have to admit I’m a bit uncomfortable with your request…yes, I do want you to make more money at your job, but perhaps you could find some other way…”

  18. Between Penn and Calvin, that makes two journalists bitten in the ass for surfacing old tweets. Is our journalists learning?

  19. “…why would a reporter spend countless hours aimlessly scrolling through Facebook posts with the sole purpose of surfacing offensive tweets?”

    Someone who wants to find Tweets and searches through Facebook posts for them has deeper issues. As it turns out Twitter is actually a different medium than Facebook.

  20. Hey, kids, photograph and Tweet your favorite jokes!

    https://amzn.to/2mwuhf0

  21. On the “tight deadline” point, there is lots of software out there, some developed explicitly for journalistic purposes, that makes corpus analysis easy. Eg. using sentiment analysis to identify those tweets that were highly emotional, or likely containing insults etc .

    As for the legal part, well, that’s essentially the right to be forgotten under the GDPR when properly understood (i.e. targeting only false, irrelevant and outdated info), so now you only have to convince your co-conspirator Baker (and good luck with that :o))

  22. “Given these constraints, why would a reporter spend countless hours aimlessly scrolling through Facebook posts with the sole purpose of surfacing offensive tweets”

    There are social media scanning services that can run the search for you within hours. You don’t even have to sit there watching it. Just hit scan and an email will alert you when done.

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