Companies grapple with weight of social media in the age of Carson King

Carson King waves to kids in the University of Iowa Stead Family Children's Hospital after the first quarter of the game
Carson King waves to kids in the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital after the first quarter of the game at Kinnick Stadium in Iowa City on Saturday, Sept. 28, 2019. As of Friday, the Iowa State fan had reached his goal of raising $2,000,000 for the hospital. His fundraiser started after a sign asking for beer money appeared on ESPN’s College GameDay and prompted viewers nationwide to begin to send him money. (Andy Abeyta/The Gazette)

The virtual world — and the way people present themselves there — has infiltrated a wide swath of today’s physical world including home life, high school hallways, collegiate admissions, the workforce, romantic pursuits and even immigration.

That new reality — or virtual reality — was on display this month after an Iowa State University fan rocketed to celebrity status by hoisting a sign scrawled with an appeal for more beer money during ESPN’s College GameDay coverage of the annual Cy-Hawk faceoff in Ames.

The feel-good story of Carson King’s decision to redirect proceeds from his beer fund to the University of Iowa Stead Family Children’s Hospital captured the attention of local and national media, inspiring tens of thousands of donations from coast to coast and even from Puerto Rico.

As King was appearing on morning talk shows and receiving offers of a year supply of Busch Light and tallboy cans imprinted with his face, the story took an unlikely turn upon revelation of two racist tweets he made eight years ago — when the now 24-year-old was 16.

Fallout from the Des Moines Register’s reporting on those tweets, King’s apology for them and the corporate response — including Anheuser-Busch’s decision to cut ties with the Altoona man — has proved a case study on the relevance of social media in everyday life, and raised questions of how much weight should be given to an individual’s online persona and activity both past and present.

“We have to learn how to cope with this,” said ISU journalism professor Michael Bugeja, who has researched and written extensively on issues of technology and social change and wrote a blog post on the Carson King saga.

“We all have to confront the new digital realities shaping social norms because of the speed and viral propensity of the web,” he wrote.


The internet and social media — with their ability to catapult any person or issue into the national consciousness and discourse — seem the likely vehicles of cultural icon Andy Warhol’s 1968 prophesy that everyone in the future would be “world-famous for 15 minutes,” according to Bugeja.

“But the machine might make that 15 minutes of infamy very unfairly,” Bugeja told The Gazette, warning, “We need to teach media and technology literacy as early as middle school and continuing through college.”

The internet ‘shows no mercy’

When Bugeja walked into his journalism classes last week ready to talk about King’s beer sign, his redirected fundraising and fallout from his Twitter history, the students were buried in their cellphones — serving as real-time examples of Bugeja’s point.

They knew all about King’s online history, along with the virtual background of Aaron Calvin — the former Des Moines Register reporter who resurrected King’s tweets even as he, too, had posted racist and obscene messages years earlier. Calvin pulled down those messages and made his Twitter feed private shortly before the Register announced he was no longer on its staff.

“My class already knew that he had deleted tweets,” Bugeja said about Calvin, adding, “We all have to do this … We all have to take a look at what we’ve written in the past. Because the internet is amoral. It shows no mercy.”

While as humans we live in linear time, the internet operates in an accelerated reality — creating emergencies and urgencies and illusions of imminent peril.

“We’re all operating as if every situation is a crisis or an opportunity that won’t be there tomorrow,” he said. “That’s not the case. That’s just the internet influencing our social mores.”

In Bugeja’s research, he’s found the internet to be neither moral nor immoral, operating without consideration of good or bad or right or wrong.

“You put in truth to the machine, it comes out fake news,” he said. “You put in responsibility, and it comes out negligence. You put in fairness, and it comes out a troll.”

It runs counter to what he and many educators teach about “living ethics.”


“We learn by experience,” Bugeja said, noting reporting on King’s old tweets ignored the fact that King since has written posts showing he’s “learned the importance of equity, diversity and inclusion.”

“We make mistakes, we learn from them, we improve, and we go on,” Bugeja said.

This state and nation for generations has had leaders who “might have said some pretty offensive things” while they were young, Bugeja said.

“The difference between then and now is that there is this digital trail that people look into,” he said. “The only way to mitigate this internet effect is to understand its nature and to adjust for it.”

Best practices for social media

That involves social media hygiene of sorts — reviewing past posts for indiscretions and exercising care in online activity going forward. That’s because people in all areas of life are using social media as another form of backgrounding — whether advisable or not, according to Bugeja.

“We all look at social media posts,” he said. “Employers look at it. Students look at it before they go on a date. Parents look at it.”

And reporters look at it. “What the Register did is what we all do,” Bugeja said.

But the Register admitted to shortcomings and incongruities in its policies and practices, “including those that did not uncover our own reporter’s past inappropriate social media postings,” according to a story it posted Thursday after backlash from its King reporting.

Going forward, the Register vowed to examine with “fresh eyes” its policies for backgrounding individuals in stories, “with particular attention to acts committed by juveniles and to the newsworthiness of that information.”

It also is considering the shift in social media culture and how online activities reflect on someone’s newsworthiness, along with its own screening policy and social media vetting of employees. Current vetting of Register employees involves traditional background checks and “can include a review of past social media activity.”

The Register reported its employees also must agree to a companywide social media policy requiring employees “not post comments that include discriminatory remarks, harassment, threats of violence or similar content.”


Many companies and institutions have similar policies, although the UI — for example — advises its staff to use discretion in turning to social media for recruiting, references or background checks.

“If you plan to check social media sites for information about your applicants, notify them of your intention so they have the opportunity to remove identifying information about race, religion, color, age, national origin, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity, or disability of which you are not to be aware as part of your decision making process,” according to UI human resources guidance.

“If you find information that leads you to be concerned about a decision to hire, you must advise the applicant and ask for an explanation similar to what is done with a reference or background check issue.”

The University of Northern Iowa, likewise, has a “best practices” guidance for social media use and a reminder that, “There is no such thing as a truly ‘private’ social media site.”

“Once you publish something through social media, you lose a degree of control of your message,” according to the UNI site. “Be certain before you post something that you are prepared to share it with a potential audience of millions.”

‘How far do we want to dig down?’

In addition to checks being done by employers, schools, parents and romantic interests, the U.S. State Department over the summer instituted a policy requiring visa applicants to submit information about their social media accounts — giving Facebook, Twitter and other social media sites even more weight in the real world, according to news reports.

But even as social media gains increased relevance and import, corporations and media outlets have been scarred by acting too brashly in response to online posts.

Anheuser-Busch, for example, faced harsh criticism for promptly cutting ties with King in light of his old tweets — with other companies stepping up to fill the endorsement void and some social media users calling for a Busch Light boycott, reversing the free advertising bump King initially provided.

The Register’s decision to confront King about his tweets, compelling his public apology, sparked harsh criticism and the loss of tens of thousands of Facebook and Twitter followers, along with an unknown number of canceled subscriptions.


The fallout raises questions about how deep social media reporting should go and how quickly to respond in real time to virtually accelerated events, according to Bugeja, who said journalistic and employment standards of yore are fast losing relevance.

“How far do we want to dig down?” he asked. “Do we want to go to gaming consoles and look for the chat there? Do we want to even dig down further and try to find texts on Snapchat that disappeared but somehow were saved?”

Corporations and institutions alike are scrambling to answer those questions. Because, Bugeja said, while the news cycle moves so quickly that one’s virtual comportment can become a distant memory in minutes, the forever nature of the internet is as pertinent as the impact the virtual world can have on a person’s pocketbook, marriage or employment.

“It characterizes a person in digital time and place and then pronounces that as indicative to his or her own character,” Bugeja said. “This is the nature of the beast. And it is a beast.”

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