Getting Fired Over Politics On Social Media
A random guy gets canned because of international forces
“I was completely unaware of what was going on. We were never trained in any of the social graces when it came to dealing with China.”
— Roy Jones, former member of Marriott’s customer-engagement center in an interview with the Wall Street Journal
This article may not be exactly what you expect. It doesn’t involve an American getting fired for posting who they voted for on Facebook. It doesn’t involve someone being asked to leave because their political beliefs go against corporate culture. It doesn’t involve an activist intentionally causing a large entity grief or the repercussions of that.
It revolves around one random poor schlub getting fired because he hit the like button on Facebook. Yes, apparently you can get fired because of that.
Not only did this poor guy get fired for a random like, he got fired from his job in America because his random like pissed off the Chinese government. This isn’t fiction, it really happened.
As crazy as the story above sounds, it only got sparse coverage in the television media. But, it should be a warning bell for everyone who has or cherishes the ability to speak freely.
Other countries who believe free speech is a virus can lean on your employers to silence you. They may also go to incredible pains to turn the social media community against you.
“Not only can’t you speak freely inside of China, but you can’t even speak freely outside of China — and that’s really bad.”
— Xiao Qiang, a Chinese internet expert at the University of California at Berkeley.
Roy Jones worked over nights handling the Marriott Rewards Twitter account making $14 per hour. He’d generally interact with the public, looking over about 300 tweets per working night.
In January, Jones clicked like on a random tweet he didn’t even remember that would result in his termination.
Jones didn’t realize it, but a few days before the Marriott sent out a survey asking its customers where they were from. They have some 300 hotels in China, so the data could be helpful. Some options on that survey listed Tibet, Macau, Hong Kong, and Taiwan.
The first 3 are part of China, but were listed separately. Taiwan isn’t recognized by China at all. So, the survey was taken as a political statement. These statements were viewed as a threat by China and violated one of their new cyber security laws. According to the Wall Street Journal:
“Under a cybersecurity law that went into effect last year (2017), any person or organization is banned from posting content that ‘endangers national security, national honor and interests’ or ‘incites subversion of national sovereignty’ in China.”
The Wall Street Journal also points out that the Chinese government hires small armies of online recruits to search the net for violations of these laws. Even though Twitter is banned in China, somehow Jones’ like was spotted.
The Chinese government forced Marriott to cancel online bookings for a week in response. They also ordered the hotel to publicly apologize and deal with those responsible.
Marriott responded by firing the Canadian marketing company that designed the survey and for good measure, canned Roy Jones. China is a big market for Marriott, so they took the threats from the government seriously.
Foreign companies deciding to kowtow to the Chinese government over speech or advertisements isn’t exactly new in that market.
China has aggressively monitored advertisements since another censorship law was passed in 2015. Since this law was passed, Chinese sensors have deemed 230,000 advertisements illegal. At one point they shut down an ad from Mercedes Benz that quoted the Dalai Lama.
However, someone in the United States getting fired over liking a tweet is something entirely new. Well, it was until that point in 2018.
China Flexes Its Muscles With The NBA — 2019
In 2019, a tweet in support of Hong Kong protesters by the general manager of the Houston Rockets set off a firestorm of controversy and business disasters as it quickly traveled across the globe.
“Fight for Freedom. Stand with Hong Kong.”
The tweet above was sent out by Daryl Morey on October 4th and within a few days he was already apologizing. According to the New York Post, Chinese partners of the NBA would immediately cut ties with the Houston Rockets. The team had been extremely popular in China due to them drafting a native son, Yao Ming.
“I’m not saying this is a state-affiliated operation. But I’ve only seen so many brand-new accounts used at one time when it was a state-affiliated operation.”
— Clemson University researcher Darren Linvill, comment to The Wall Street Journal
Within 12 hours after the initial tweet, Morey would be mentioned 16,000 times from accounts that appeared to be backed by the Chinese government. In analysis done by the Wall Street Journal of 170,000 tweets over 6 days, it appears that 50% came from accounts with fewer than 13 followers. It looks like Morey may have been the victim of an organized troll mob.
At the moment Morey still has his job, but the NBA Commissioner Adam Silver said Chinese partners wanted Morey fired. Upon disclosure of this threat, Silver received backlash from Chinese sources.
Silver was called a liar and told he would face “retribution” for his comments by Chinese State Media. They also said Silver was working on behest of American politicians.
What “retribution” means is uncertain, but Silver has mentioned that the NBA is suffering an economic backlash for the whole situation.
You’re Not Immune From Censorship
“This job was all I had. I’m at the age now where I don’t have many opportunities.”
— Roy Jones, interview with the Wall Street Journal
These stories you’ve read may seem like they’re unique and don’t apply to you. But, how many things do you randomly click like on during a day?
Does the company you work for have significant dealings with China or another firm that does?
Jones was fired for a random click on a company social media account, but Morey drew fire for a share on his personal account. What do you have on your personal Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram account that could be considered a “threat”?
Brigadier General Robert Spalding in his book Stealth War, describes how China is conducting an asymmetric war against the United States through economic and technological means.
He explains that China has a whole wing in their military dedicated to just conducting cyber-attacks. Whether it’s hacking or troll mobs, like described in Morey’s case, it is a tool that’s regularly used. There’s also another cyber warfare group that’s proven effective.
China pays the equivalent of 50 cents per positive social media posting a citizen makes about the government. They’ll also pay that amount for a posting attacking an ‘enemy’ of the state. According to an article in Business Insider, approximately 250,000 to 300,000 Chinese citizens are taking part.
You may imagine that a government like China may not be able to silence you, but I’m sure Jones and Morey probably figured the same thing. Morey in effect was silenced and Jones just got fired by applying pressure to their employers.
With the sheer number of net warriors China has engaged, global economic ties, and the staggering amount of business and personal content on social media, events like this will become more common.
Despite the fact that you live in a country where you’re allowed freedom of expression, a repressive country you have no contact with may be able to silence your voice. They may even be able to push your employer into firing you.
Unfortunately in our present day we all have the possibility of being Roy Jones.
Thank you for reading my ramblings, if you enjoyed it, please share.