Bill Torpy: Racist Facebook posts and the power of Internet shaming

If you want to learn how to sabotage a budding career in just a few clicks, take a gander at Gerod Roth, the newly unemployed marketing manager who discovered the swift and devastating force of social media shaming.

Roth was ascending in an industry all about image when he tore his own to shreds. Last month, the 25-year-old posted on Facebook a selfie showing him with the 3-year-old son of a black co-worker in the background. And then he let his knucklehead friends take it from there.

Click, post, and then let the Sambo jokes, the slave quips and African starvation wisecracks flow. And then scatter and hide as a tsunami of digital outrage rains down on you. Roth lost his job, as did at least a couple of his fellow commenters.

In fact, he’ll be marked with the scarlet “R” for a long time. Google the terms “Gerod Roth” and “Racist” and you’ll find 123,000 hits. Even Time magazine weighed in.

Those pages will linger on the Internet for a loooong time. Good luck on your job search, young man. This will be you for the foreseeable future. Even if it really isn’t you.

Roth said that this is not him, that he is a victim, too. He said the whole thing is being taken out of context by activists who rearranged segments of the dialogue to make him look worse.

He said militant social justice supporters who want to make a point "share and share and share" an item until it goes viral. Naturally, he said, they don’t try to get all sides of the story because they have a point to make.

“People are very quick to brigade,” he said. “They shoot first and ask questions later. They don't ask questions or validate anything.”

My mother used to advise me to not do or say anything you wouldn’t want printed in the newspaper. I suppose that advice is 10 times (or 10,000 times) more apropos these days.

My guess is that the posters and jokesters on Roth’s blog aren’t regular readers of Stormfront. It seems they were clueless 20-somethings engaged in an ever-escalating exchange of bad/mean can-you-top-this humor, an effort to outdo each previous taboo comment with a more shock-worthy, edgier one — ala dead baby jokes, circa 1979.

The fact that these racist comments were aimed at an adorable boy, or even came across their brains, is troubling. They thought they were in their warm, comfortable online safe quarters, their own echo-chamber, which is what most social media groupings are.

“It was just a joke gone wrong, when it came to responding to the comments,” said Skylar Felton, a black man who posted “#BlackLivesMatter” in the midst of racist comments about the child. He has communicated with Roth before and said he doesn’t think he is a bigot.

But Ife Johari, a Detroit blogger who helped spread Roth’s infamy far and wide, said people online often show their true selves.

“I think people (online) are who they really are,” she said. “They are like they are when they’re at home. They’re usually typing these things up in their home where they are comfortable.”

Roth and his friends were the recipients of the swift backlash that is Internet shaming, an unforgiving, scorched-earth force made up of thousands of individuals banding together to measure out justice for real and perceived transgressions.

Sometimes that reaction is to a bad joke, a quip of mistaken intent or sometimes pure cruelty. Doesn’t matter, the backlash is sudden and often complete.

The granddaddy of all social media shaming is Justine Sacco, a communications director (funny how people who should know better don’t) who while boarding an overseas flight tweeted out, “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!”

By the time she landed 11 hours later she was reviled worldwide, her career in tatters. Turns out no one saw what she said was the intended irony in her AIDS quip.

Johari said shaming isn’t all one-way directed. She noted a zoo employee in Chicago was fired after posting she was tired of “serving these rude ass white people.”

The more recent group was either ham-handed in their humor or vile and mean. Possibly both.

On Sept. 16, Roth posted, without comment, a picture of 3-year-old Cayden standing behind him at work. The racially scented and mean-spirited jibes started flowing immediately. At some point, Roth noted that the boy was “feral.”

But, he said the feral comment was simply a response to a friend who asked why he had young kids in the office. A further comment where he allegedly expanded on it was made up by someone else, Roth said.

But Roth, who was smart enough to do well in his field, was not wise enough to take down or erase the vicious comments. (For those of you at home, a couple things: A) Don’t say or write mean, bigoted, terrible things about others. And B) Be smart enough to monitor your social media site so others don’t).

He said he asked his friends to “chill out” after making the inappropriate jokes but got busy with work and never looked at the Facebook page again until it blew up days later.

Not taking it down immediately is a huge regret, he said

Within a couple weeks, the boy’s mother brought the Facebook string to the attention of her and Roth’s boss, Michael Da Graca Pinto, president of the Polaris Marketing Group. Roth was shown the door Sept. 29.

“We have to be more careful about who we hire,” Pinto told the AJC. More intrusive Web searches of what people have written and said will probably be part of that process.

Roth took down his Facebook site but screenshots of the digitized offenses made the rounds on the Internet as thousands, maybe even tens of thousands of people voiced their outrage and disgust, the two essential ingredients in viral feeding frenzies.

An old mugshot of Roth appeared online. The shaming crowd contacted the Facebook commenters’ places of work if they could find them. Roth’s online compadres at first fired back at critics, but then ran for cover themselves. The matter reached its climax this week.

Johari noted that the episode was an example of “Black Twitter doing its thing,” referring to the loosely affiliated multitude of black folks who communicate on social issues through the medium. A study three years ago found that black people use Twitter at nearly twice the rate of whites.

I note a piece written previously by Daniella Gibbs Leger, a former White House staffer who is communications director for the Center for American Progress. She wrote about the power of the medium and ended with several points, two of them being: “1. Don’t mess with Black Twitter because it will come for you. 2. If you’re about to post a really offensive joke, take 10 minutes and really think about it.”

I really don’t know how one goes about messing with Black Twitter — or any other kind of Twitter for that matter. But I think #2 is pretty good advice.

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