Jailed Texas Teen, a Social Media Crisis Management Lesson

Sections of this topic

    The wrong words online can come back to haunt you

    The case of Justin Carter, the Central Texas teen jailed for over five months as a result of a Facebook comment, is a powerful lesson in just how serious social media has gotten, and why your personal crisis management considerations should include careful censorship of controversial conversation.

    Here’s what went down, as described in a HuffPost blog by Ryan Grenoble:

    Earlier this year, Carter and a friend got into an Facebook argument with someone regarding “League of Legends,” an online video game with notoriously die-hard fans. Justin’s father, Jack, explained to ABC local affiliate KVUE that at the end of the conversation “[s]omeone had said something to the effect of ‘Oh you’re insane, you’re crazy, you’re messed up in the head,’ to which [Justin] replied ‘Oh yeah, I’m real messed up in the head, I’m going to go shoot up a school full of kids and eat their still, beating hearts,’ and the next two lines were lol and jk [all sic].”

    Now, we fully agree that Justin’s comment was wildly inappropriate, and warranted a full investigation, but here’s the rub…after finding no weapons, plans, web searches, or any other evidence that Justin was using anything other than very poorly planned sarcasm, he still went to jail with a $500,000 bond. Nearly six months later, having celebrated, if you could call it that, his nineteenth birthday behind bars, and, according to his father, being beaten and thrown naked into solitary confinement for a large part of that time, Justin’s family has just barely managed to bail him out. Of course, he’ll still stand trial for making a “terroristic threat,” a charge that could haunt him for the rest of his life whether he is exonerated or not.

    From what we see on Facebook and other social media sites on a daily basis, this could end up being just about anybody. People post statements like, “I wish I could just burn this office down” or “I’m going to kick my boss’ ass if he yells at me one more time” without a second thought, not realizing that with a phone call and the wrong judge (of which there seem to be an inordinate number in Texas), they could wind up in a situation very much like Carter’s.

    Crisis Management 101 for personal social media communications: You aren’t just speaking to your friends. Sure, those close to you may know you, and “get” your sick sense of humor, off-color jokes, etc, but when you post a message on social media, it’s out there for all to see. If you want to cover your own behind, make sure the things you post can’t be misconstrued, especially as a threat against person or property, or you could wind up the next Justin Carter.

    For more resources, see the Free Management Library topic: Crisis Management

    [Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., an international crisis management consultancy, author of Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management and Keeping the Wolves at Bay – Media Training. Erik Bernstein is Social Media Manager for the firm, and also editor of its newsletter, Crisis Manager]