Time to End the Corporate Slavery of Social Media Policies

Jeff Pearce
12 min readJun 5, 2024

I’m busy looking for a job, since relying on book royalties and churning out occasional freelance work hardly keeps me in frozen lasagnas and weekend cappuccinos. So, like many others, I began to panic a little — just a little — over my tweets on X, where I enjoy more than 76,000 followers and thousands more subscribers to my blog posts and YouTube channel. I couldn’t erase my record of public opinions and statements even if I wanted to — which I don’t. But it does mean I live in a weird alternate dimension of “almost fame,” which makes me only slightly more respectable than gyrating TikTok stars (thank gawd).

Thanks to my reportage and activism connected to a recent war in Ethiopia, I became briefly famous in that country. But you can find online a smear accusing me of being “bought off” and taking cash payments from a foreign embassy in Washington, which would be a neat trick since I was supposed to have done this while the Canada/US border was closed during the Covid pandemic. You can find other nonsense accusing me of everything from being a pornographer to a genocide denier.

More recently, I wrote a column — taken from a chapter for a book I’m writing about journalism — on how the biases in Western coverage of Palestine are nothing new and go right back to the British Mandate. And with the Gaza Crisis being the polarizing event that it is, I have to wonder whether my writing about it gives potential employers pause.

And then I came to my senses and realized that I’m not the one with the problem. That despite the Internet supposedly disrupting media and democratizing it, bringing us all closer together, we have all quietly submitted to corporate slavery.

All of us, every single person, is now automatically assumed to be an extension of a company or organizational brand, even during our personal time.

A few years ago, there was thankfully a widespread push-back against employers who insist that staff respond to calls and even deliver work beyond office hours; the lesson was supposed to be that you are not at your employer’s beck and call just because cell phone tech made you accessible.

But just as corrosive — arguably more so — is the unspoken premise that your employer’s needs outweigh your right to freedom of expression; that even if you agree that this is wrong, we’re supposed to just shrug and take it, like the fact that women’s tampons and pads are considered a consumer item instead of treated as a health necessity, or that men are not entitled to paternal leave after the birth of their child in some jurisdictions. Yet we desperately need a new push-back if we are ever to regain our rights. As George Orwell, wrote in a draft preface for Animal Farm, “If liberty means anything at all, it means the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” We seem to have forgotten that, and worse, we even warp the true meaning of the battles over free speech.

An interesting article was written last November by Howard Levitt, which usefully showcases so much that is wrong with the thinking over social media policies. Levitt is the lawyer handling a civil case appeal for Jordan Peterson, the Spleen That No One Asked to Vent. You’ll recall that Peterson rose to global fame while he was still a psychology professor at the University of Toronto and refused to use gender-neutral pronouns while interacting with students. I have never understood why in the midst of all the controversy over rights and language no one ever pointed out the obvious: Peterson is just a rude boor. I was taught that it is good manners to address people the way they ask you to, that you defer to their chosen labels and pronounce their name properly.

In any case, it was perhaps inevitable that he would clash with university authorities and the College of Psychologists of Ontario (the case where Levitt represents him) and would get himself booted off Twitter before Elon Musk resurrected his account after buying the platform. But Peterson is a walking, bloviating example of how the rules for us mere mortals are different than the ones for those who turn out to be useful as media click-bait and can be made into a commodity.

Any brief exile from platforms or sanctions that Peterson experienced quickly faded in comparison to the windfall of attention he has received, which has turned out to be highly lucrative for him. With his abrasive, condescending persona, he was embraced as a new conservative prophet, with mainstream media rushing to do interviews; his books, of course, confront you any time you walk into a Barnes & Noble.

So, of course, his lawyer has been happy to toe the line that Peterson’s case “is entirely different” than that of other commentators who run afoul of their workplaces. Levitt claims the case is about weaponizing Peterson’s political enemies “and allowing them to complain about his political comments to his professional regulatory body…”

But Peterson was not the real focus of Levitt’s article. Instead, Levitt argued that the rest of us should play by other rules. “Some of my clients have taken the position that it does not wish its employees to post anything politically controversial. Even more have prohibited political speech, of any kind, in their workplaces, on the basis that the workplace is for working and anything which fuels fury, animosity and resentment is antithetical to that. A good motto indeed.”

Why then should Peterson get a pass? After all, his comments were political, as Levitt just conceded, and his client even released a video series attacking political correctness and Canadian human rights legislation.

But Levitt likes to have it both ways. In his universe, “one can never conflate debate and speech in the public sphere with speech in the workplace. And the scope of the ‘workplace’ has dramatically expanded over the last several years to include speech anywhere which impacts on your employer.”

This is a dangerous, indeed ridiculous assertion. The boundaries are defined by the employer, judged by the employer, and their employee is therefore a de facto mental slave, both in their professional and personal life.

Levitt trots out a real-life example intended to support his argument, and I can only think, Woe to that poor shmuck who got screwed over. A worker for a firm “with many Israeli clients” posted material online, “which, although not hateful and thus not clearly cause for discharge, would inherently antagonize those clients and limit its ability to attract others. That might not be cause for discharge without severance, but it surely is good reason to fire that employee.”

Note that Levitt doesn’t mention any clients were antagonized, merely that there was potential for them to be offended. Theoretical corporate interests are elevated here above the personal rights of the individual. Where, we might ask, does this stop if it ever does? If I go on vacation in China or India and happen to take a phone-cam video of police beating up demonstrators and post it, under Levitt’s reasoning, my company, which does a lot of business with Beijing or New Delhi, can kick me to the curb.

And what a wonderful end-run around corporate social responsibility, even a great strategy to intimidate whistleblowers. You can surely bet that if a company doesn’t like you posting video of a demonstration, it won’t like the idea that you might email a journalist (on your own personal laptop because you’re hopefully not an idiot) and mention your employer does business with the Indian government. After all, the logical extension of the premise that you are always the company representative would naturally include any reference you make to the company, even in private communications.

Remember that while peddling all this, Levitt still claims his high-profile client doesn’t “fuel fury” with political speech. Must be nice to have such a versatile lawyer, but unfortunately the rest of us often can’t afford one and don’t have chase producers for BBC or Fox News eager to book us as guests.

In fact, professors who have taken a stand over the Gaza Crisis and have long been sympathetic to the Palestinian cause recently found themselves fired over their choices. After 18 years, Danny Shaw lost his job as a professor of Latin American and Caribbean studies at John Jay College because he organized pro-Palestinian protests, teach-ins, and conferences and posted a tweet that called Zionism “a genocidal disease.” (The tweet has since been deleted.)

When Columbia president Minouche Shafik appeared before a congressional hearing about antisemitism on university campuses in April, she was grilled by House representatives and discussed the activities and conduct of five professors. Critics have accused Shafik of lying in her testimony and in effect, tossing “faculty and academic freedom under the bus.” One of the professors mentioned was Mohamed Abdou, a specialist in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies — who didn’t have tenure. “What she effectively did was blacklist me globally,” Abdou claimed to The Intercept, suggesting that a Facebook post from October 11 was used for a smear and “taken dramatically out of context.”

In the rambling, jargon-heavy Facebook post, Abdou starts by arguing that “decolonization is an inherently violent” act and later makes a gift to any opponents by stating, “Yes, I’m with the muqawamah (the resistance) be it Hamas and Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad but up to a point — given ultimate differences over our ethical political commitments…” Only the most obtuse could see this as anything but political discussion after much reflection.

The fact that it’s X or Facebook hardly matters. Today, Angela Davis is a progressive icon. But back in 1969, she was at war with her employer, the University of California, which fired her from her job as an assistant professor because she was a member of a Communist party affiliated with the Black Panthers; the ploy had the full backing of then-California governor Ronald Reagan. When UCLA was legally forced to take Davis back, its Board of Regents fired her again for “inflammatory rhetoric” — used in four speeches that she didn’t even make on campus.

The fact that Abdou and Shaw’s cases are newsworthy — just as Davis’s case once made the papers — is because we know deep down the situation is absurd. These educational institutions want the corporate superiority that Howard Levitt pushes (sometimes), yet they also want to be seen as forums and marketplaces for ideas. In investigating and firing their professors, the universities appear ridiculous for attacking their own.

It’s funny then — and certainly convenient — how an argument over “campus safety” gained traction while academics were increasingly under attack. Despite social media video even showing an Emory University professor getting slammed into the ground by Atlanta police, we have all been served a steady selection of stories on how Jewish students feel “terrified” on campuses.

It’s been a highly effective tactic to muddy the waters because now you’re forced to debate people’s “feelings,” which we’re all entitled to, instead of ideas. Never mind that this fear is hardly true for all. In a thoughtful opinion piece for CNN, Yale student Ian Berlin didn’t minimize the rise in anti-Semitism on campuses, including his own, but also stressed, “At every turn, I have encountered a community of activists and organizers that is eager to listen, ready to learn, and committed to including Jewish voices and perspectives.”

The panic button over campus safety also nicely eclipses the fact that regular protests are being made by Israeli Jews against Netanyahu in Jerusalem and Tel Aviv, citizens who strenuously denounce his policies on Gaza.

But your employer, of course, whether a company or an organization, doesn’t have to care about any of that. You have wronged the company if you just bother to post on X or Facebook, “Free Palestine” or cheer on the Trump verdict. The sense of your argument, the rightness of whatever you posted, is irrelevant to that decision because the corporation decides what’s relevant, which is only its own interests.

News outlets are not immune from this bizarre rationale. Back in 2020, the Washington Post slapped a suspension on its reporter Felicia Sonmez, claiming she broke its social media policy for merely tweeting a link after the death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant; the link was to a 2016 story on the rape allegations Bryant faced in 2003, and it naturally outraged hardcore Kobe fans. But Sonmez had merely offered a link to facts. It took a grassroot effort by more than 400 employees of the newspaper to fight back on Sonmez’s behalf, with the Post eventually caving and letting her go back to work.

We live in a world where job applications online now insist you have a LinkedIn profile, where they often leave slots for you to fill in your X or Facebook profile.

“Checking a candidate’s social media is an excellent way for employers to gain a better understanding of the candidate’s character, interests, and behavior outside of their professional life,” chirps an online article from last September. Not surprisingly, its aim is to hustle companies to hire firms that do social media background checks.

It is apparently beyond the writer’s imagination that your “character, interests, and behavior outside your professional life” are none of your employer’s business. As with Levitt and the courts, we are simply told it is, and this is our reality.

“Negative behavior or controversial opinions expressed by an employee on social media can harm the company’ reputation,” the article tells us.

You can find pieces like this across the Internet. Another article by a law firm in February again treated this pervasive climate of censorship as if it’s reality as it should be: “Often, workplace policies concerning the use of social media will expressly include social media activities outside of the workplace and include the use of social media platforms when communicating between colleagues beyond ordinary working hours.”

All this represents a group-think that is insidiously dangerous, that presumes that when you are not a consumer, you are only an employee. Your own personal aspirations, your political opinions, your very character must not only align but conform to an ideal projected by those signing your paycheck.

In Corporate World, nothing can be controversial; life must always be a placid sea and business must always be as usual. At the end of this road is the faceless anonymity of such worker bee/consumers. And we acquiesce to it even as we plaster Instagram with our safe, non-threatening V-K shots and Facebook with posts about family reunions.

Employers will no doubt continue to sift through our online profiles and carry out “pre-emptive strikes” to bar whom they consider undesirables. Before the Internet, your resume could get tossed into a bin because you went to the wrong school or because the recruiter simply didn’t like the way you dressed, and these whims still happen, too. But it is too much to ask (not to mention psychologically unhinged and soul-destroying) for people to pour obsessive energy into fashioning a supposedly “safe” construct of themselves only for their employer.

We have already been conned into giving up the milestones and emblems of our personal lives, with media companies using us as raw fodder for content generation and then selling us back to ourselves. As you step into a financial firm or even a media company for your first day of work, one of the standard rituals is to sign the impenetrable, lengthy bargain that obligates you to declare any “outside activity” to the employer. These can address justified concerns, like having stock shares that would be a clear conflict of interest, but they can cover practically anything.

I’ve always wondered how an employer would react if I were financially secure enough to get cheeky and hand them a contract of my own. The reflexive answer is always: “If you want to work here, these are the terms.” But in hiring us, the obligations to the employee are only those imposed by the law: that you pay us properly, that you don’t put us in unsafe working conditions, and so on. Every corporate entity has looked upon granting rights and privileges to its employees as a kind of noble largesse rather than providing what is due in an enlightened, progressive society.

In the same vein, every company loves the Levitt logic. It decides what’s bad but will claim the perpetrator of the social media crime acted as an individual. The ultimate punishment is exile from the corporate world, which legal minds now tell us extends everywhere — unless you prove so popular that you can build a brand to resurrect yourself as Peterson did, which only a few of us can do.

The way out of this insanity is to go back to the core Enlightenment value that was supposed to keep flying as a banner in today’s mainstream culture. You were entitled to say what you think, no matter how revolting or objectionable it is to others. It was on you, not anyone else. You could say what you please outside the office, short of hate speech, and if what you say is hate speech, that’s determined by a legal judgment of criminal authorities, not a jury from Human Resources. This was supposed to stand for all time because we used to recognize that not all people are shills for political factions or corporations, nor do they all wish to be. And they are entitled to live for themselves.



Jeff Pearce

Writer person. Books - Prevail, The Karma Booth, Gangs in Canada; in June 2021, Winged Bull, a bio of Henry Layard, the Victorian era’s Indiana Jones.