During a trip to Washington, D.C., last month, Lindsey Stone posed for a snapshot while making crude gestures. She posted it on Facebook, and soon her life turned upside down.
The incident -- and to even call it that is part of the story -- serves to underscore the power of social media. Moreover, it exposes the extent to which mainstream media have become obsessed with whatever is echoing online.
Stone, 30, and a co-worker visited Arlington National Cemetery, where they noticed a small sign near the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier advising "Silence and Respect." As Stone had done earlier on the trip when she posed with a cigarette in front of a No Smoking sign, she mocked the cemetery advisory by opening her mouth as if yelling and raised her middle finger to convey disrespect. The behavior was juvenile, and posting the photo on Facebook was offensive, but what happened next was unexpected.
Protests about the snapshot erupted online, followed by a Facebook page devoted to getting Stone fired from her job at an assisted living facility in Massachusetts. Her employer responded by suspending Stone and her friend without pay. The Internet went into overdrive. Finally, WRC-TV in Washington reported the story, after which NBC’s "Today" show devoted an entire segment to vilifying the two women.
Immediately following the network report the "Fire Lindsey Stone" site tripled its "likes." Hours later, Stone’s boss made her dismissal permanent, despite her apology about the photo.
Stone wrote on Facebook that she "meant no disrespect to people that serve or have served our country," explaining that she was "challenging authority in general."
Perhaps she’s naive as well as impudent. But even in an era marked by intemperate social and political debate, the content on the "Fire Lindsey Stone" website is chilling. In addition to calling the woman every vile name possible, posters had published her phone number and address, along with those of her employer.
NBC’s decision to run the story, especially the way it did, is even more troubling -- the media equivalent of throwing gasoline on a fire. "It’s sad," "it’s horrible," "what’s happening to this world?" said the three anonymous people "Today" chose to broadcast. They weren’t talking about the Internet or media; they were referring to Stone’s offending photo. There was also the VFW member "Today" found in Hyannis, Mass., offering the comment, "Pretty disrespectful and stupid."
NBC’s Natalie Morales concluded her report by predicting, "I think she’s not going to be having a job after this." Is Morales siding with the Facebook mob that believes Stone deserved to be fired? The four "Today" hosts discussing the story seemed only to be concerned with the photo, not the violation of the woman’s right to free speech, or the slander being heaped upon her online.
"Today" and its network counterparts report daily on what’s "trending" in social media. Cable channels, too, are quick to run photos from Twitter -- such as those during Hurricane Sandy -- without checking their authenticity. These channels also run Tweets and Internet postings at the bottom of the screen, without knowledge of who the sender might be.
The result of all this is that mainstream media are gradually becoming tools of social media.
Lindsey Stone shouldn’t have lost her job. Nor should she be subjected to the barrage of hate that has erupted over her warped idea of what’s funny, and her misguided decision to post a photo of it online.
For their part, "Today" and other mass media must reassess the difference between shedding light and lighting a fire.
Peter Funt is a writer and speaker and can be reached at www.CandidCamera.com.