In early January when a right-wing mob stormed into the United States Capitol, a lot of people seemed surprised. Unfortunately, I can’t say I was one of them. I’ve been along for the ride for years. I watched as QAnon grew from a few small fringe voices to a theory that sitting members of Congress and people from my high school believe in, all the while waiting for Facebook and Twitter to do something—anything.
After all, I’m a social media manager.
I started working in social media at Wendy’s in 2012, and even back then my boss would joke that I worked in the toilet. We just accepted that it came with the territory. While the outside world thought our job was participating in silly hashtag games or mixing it up with celebrities (and to a certain extent, that was the gig), it was also dealing with people threatening to shoot up their local drive-thru because they got three chicken nuggets when they paid for four.
— Mindy Kaling (@mindykaling) April 10, 2013
— Wendy's (@Wendys) February 14, 2013
We’ve been conditioned to believe that it has to be this way; internet comments are a cesspool and that’s just how it is. Facebook and Twitter have never really cared about the working conditions of social media managers. Hell, they don’t care about the working conditions of their own content moderators.
As an industry, we’ve historically had a laundry list of complaints. People think we’re interns. Even when you’re on vacation, you’re not really on vacation. (I once had to answer a work email from a moving bus in the Middle East because someone got locked out of the company Instagram.) Everyone feels like they can do our jobs, because they’re also on Facebook, and really, how hard could it be?
But when we focus on these little indignities, we miss the bigger question. Is continuing to work in social media an ethical choice? Are we tacitly endorsing the inaction of social media companies?
The relationship between social media manager and platform is almost parasitic. Our companies funnel millions of dollars to Facebook and Twitter. When we go viral, it generates positive PR not only for our brands, but for the platforms themselves. How many companies pivoted their strategies and funneled more money to Twitter in the wake of the Sassy Wendy’s tweets? How many sales decks has Twitter included it in? I’m betting it’s a lot. Our work shapes the success of these platforms, but when we need their help, it’s clear nobody is listening.
In late 2018, a man named Cesar Sayoc mailed 16 pipe bombs to people Donald Trump had criticized on Twitter: Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and my boss at the time, Tom Steyer. In the wake of this attempted violence, I reached out to both Facebook and Twitter about the escalating rhetoric I’d seen on our social media channels.
In private messages and comments, people told me we’d be hung for treason. They talked about how Steyer and other prominent Democrats were raping and murdering children and harvesting adrenochrome from their blood so they could drink it and live forever. They told us to prepare for revolution, to remember who had all the guns. (They were always sure to mention the guns). One man received our flyer about impeachment in the mail and tweeted us back a video of him shooting holes in it with a pistol.
Just another day at the office.
Around this same time, I realized our Facebook pages had no mechanism to report abuse. We could block people from contacting us, but there was no way to report back to Facebook about people using its platform to send violent threats. My pleas for help fell on deaf ears until I finally tweeted about it to 40,000 followers on my personal account. Only then did Facebook contact me to ask for a screen recording of the settings on our page. I sent it and never heard back.
Tech companies know these threats exist on their platforms. They have had years to act and chose to do nothing about it, in favor of boosting their user metrics and ad dollars, until it was almost too late. Perhaps this is a controversial opinion, but I personally don’t think it should take an insurrection of the U.S. Capitol for Twitter to ban QAnon. Perhaps when people start saying things like, “You pedophiles are drinking the blood of children,” platforms should recognize the potential for it to escalate into real-world violence.
This won’t be the last time something like this happens. Extremist views will continue to incubate on social media platforms, distributed algorithmically to suck people further down a rabbit hole of extremism and radicalization. More people will use Facebook and Twitter to organize. Will they take it seriously before it’s too late? Because they didn’t this time.
So what are we going to do about it? We already know that a short-term ad boycott isn’t the answer. How do we, as social media managers, lead on this issue? Can we convince our companies or these platforms to make serious change? I don’t know where we go from here, but I do know that I’ve reached a breaking point.
I know I’m not the only one, either. In the wake of the violence at the Capitol, I tweeted my frustrations. My mentions and DMs immediately filled up with people who are similarly ethically conflicted. Many wouldn’t speak on this issue publicly, for fear of professional repercussions. But if those conversations were any indication, social media platforms—and major companies who fund them with their ad dollars—need to do some serious soul-searching.
Maybe I’ll go to grad school. Maybe I’ll try to make use of my journalism degree for something other than writing tweets. In any case, I don’t see a future in this career path anymore until there are some serious changes. Where do I see myself in five years? I don’t know, but hopefully not in the comments section anymore.
If you feel the same way, find me on Twitter (and yes, I do see the irony of writing this whole essay and then directing you to my Twitter). I’m still holding out hope we can find a way to organize and push for real change in this industry, but I can’t do it alone.
Amy Brown is a writer and social media strategist with 10 years of experience working in-house at major brands. She lives in the San Francisco Bay Area.