SMM Case Exercise: Public Shaming & Hostile Environment

This extended exercise is effectively a mini-case based on a Tech Crunch article from March, 2013. A sexual joke at a high-tech conference resulted in public shaming, a DDOS (distributed denial-of-service) attack, and a couple firings. The background and the quotes included here all came from the Tech Crunch (2013) article.

Background: The world of high-tech start-ups is often referred to as a “boy’s club” where women have difficulty being taken seriously and treated fairly. A “dongle” is a connector in electronic parts; “forking a repo” is a phrase used by software developers to mean borrowing someone else’s software code to start a new project.

A well-known woman in the tech industry (initials A. R) who served as “developer evangelist” for a start-up firm, was sitting in the 10th row of the Pycon tech conference. She heard two men sitting behind her joke about dongles and forking someone’s repo in a way that she understood to be sexual humor. A.R. took a picture of the two with her smartphone and called them out (with their pictures) on Twitter and in her blog. The two men were escorted out of Pycon and one of them was fired the next day. The CEO of the company who fired the man said  “As a company that is dedicated to gender equality and values honorable behavior, we conducted a thorough investigation. The result of this investigation led to the unfortunate outcome of having to let this employee go.” (TechCrunch 2013)

1.       Do you agree with the steps taken by in dealing with this problem by (a) the Pycon conference, (b) the CEO and (c) A.R.? Is there anything that you would do differently?

The fired developer said online that “I really did not mean to offend anyone and I really do regret the comment and how it made [A.R.] feel. She had every right to report me to staff, and I defend her position. 

2.       Does this additional information change how you feel about question #1?

The fired developer went on to say: While I did make a big dongle joke about a fictional piece hardware that identified as male, no sexual jokes were made about forking. My friends and I had decided forking someone’s repo is a new form of flattery (the highest form being implementation) and we were excited about one of the presenters projects; a friend said “I would fork that guys repo” The sexual context was applied by [A.R.], and not us.

My second comment is this, [A.R.] has an audience and is a successful person of the media. Just check out her web page linked in her twitter account, her hard work and social activism speaks for itself. With that great power and reach comes responsibility. As a result of the picture she took I was let go from my job today. Which sucks because I have 3 kids and I really liked that job. She gave me no warning, she smiled while she snapped the pic and sealed my fate. Let this serve as a message to everyone, our actions and words, big or small, can have a serious impact. (TechCrunch 2013)

3.    Do these comments change how you feel about question #1?

4.   Do you believe that A.R. misuse her “great power and reach” by public shaming the two men without first warning them?

5.   Was the CEO too quick to fire the developer? [Acknowledging incomplete information]

After the fired developer’s comments were posted, A.R. began receiving vile and obscene comments and threats on her blog and social media sites. Many included derogatory and degrading terms that are only associated with women. Someone claiming to speak for the vigilante-hacker group Anonymous even threatened a DDOS (distributed denial of service – shutting down their website) attack on A.R.’s employer.

6.    Does the nature of the virulent personal attacks on A.R. reaffirm that the high tech industry has serious sexual equality issues?

7.    Does a hostile sexual environment justify A.R. actions in immediately publicly shaming the men who had offended her at the conference?

The employer of A.R. did suffer a DDOS attack. They then fired A.R.

8.       Would it be ethical to fire someone solely for a role in causing a DDOS attack on the company?

A.R.’s employer put out a press release explaining the firing: A developer evangelist’s [A.R.’s role] responsibility is to build and strengthen our Developer Community across the globe. In light of the events over the last 48+ hours, it has become obvious that her actions have strongly divided the same community she was supposed to unite. As a result, she can no longer be effective in her role… In the end, the consequences that resulted from how she reported the conduct put our business in danger. Our commitment to our 130 employees, their families, our community members and our more than 130,000 valued customers is our primary concern. (TechCrunch article)

9.       So according to the executives, A.R. not only put the company at risk, she could no longer be effective because much of the community that she was supposed to reach out to were very angry with her. Does her firing seem justified and ethical?

The fourth article listed at the end of this exercise provides evidence that A.R. has a history of immediately escalating gender equality issues into very public confrontations.

10.    Is that practice understandable given the ongoing equality issues? Do you think it is the most effective way to promote equality?

11.    Is it ethical to use photos and a significant social media following as a weapon for a good cause?

There are many articles about this incident. The four used in preparing this exercise, are recommended as further reading for those interested in knowing more about the incidents: the Tech Crunch overview, a Mark Sachaefer blog, A.R.’s blog, and the blog of another prominent woman in high-tech who had previous dealings with A.R.:

  1. Tech Crunch article 
  2. Mark Schaefer blog 
  3. A.R.’s blog 
  4. Blog of industry woman who knows A.R

I would like your feedback – Do you think these questions:

  • Present the situation fairly?
  • Are a good springboard to a discussion of ethics and etiquette in social media?
  • Should be included in an ethics chapter for SMM students?
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