Ken Bone, a worker at a coal-fired power plant in southern Illinois, asked the penultimate question at the second presidential debate of the 2016 election. Mr. Bone’s unassuming and approachable demeanor—made complete by his question’s focus on the rather mundane issue of energy policy—was a startling contrast to the dark and rough-and-tumble tone of this year’s presidential election campaign. His apparent image as a nonpartisan, sincere American voter who cares earnestly about the issues was enough for netizens to canonize him instantly into a meme.
But when Mr. Bone participated in a Reddit AMA “Ask Me Anything”) session using his hitherto anonymous handle, netizens were able to rake through his posting history and discovered that some of his commentary seemed to be distasteful. In one such example, he smirked about how he enjoyed viewing the nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence that had been hacked from her iCloud account and distributed across the internet. In another, he weighed in on the killing of Trayvon Martin, deeming it “justified” even as he admonished Martin’s killer for his behavior. Netizens, and the spectrum of online media outlets that vie for their attention, pivoted immediately from heaping praise upon Mr. Bone to fulminating over his betrayal of their hastily conceived conception of him.
Lessons to be learned:
There are certainly many lessons to be derived from the Ken Bone affair and similar internet frenzies, and these lessons cut across multiple disciplines, including that of due diligence:
No one person is all good or all bad. This may seem to be a too-simple truism, but the reality is that our minds too easily default to making all-or-nothing assessments of people, organizations, and situations. When these judgments change, they may do so too drastically, pendulating wildly (as in Mr. Bone’s case) from undue adulation to gratuitous condemnation. There was no middle ground afforded to Mr. Bone.
But the full truth about what Mr. Bone’s comment history says about him is that he is often helpfully empathetic (as when he offered support and consolation to a rape survivor), even if he is sometimes knavish and inappropriate (as when he joked about viewing nude photographs of Jennifer Lawrence and claimed—possibly mendaciously—to have committed insurance fraud). In the business world, appropriate pre-transactional due diligence must accurately convey the actual balance between the good and the bad in a person. Expressing such a balance accurately requires a standard of “reasonableness” and an explicit appreciation that the assessment is likely not the full measure of the man.
Judgments are formed too quickly to be accurate—and this is dangerous. The Twittersphere’s opinion of Mr. Bone went from excessively laudatory right after the debate to excessively indignant just four days later. Each of these characterizations was made by large numbers of people who only had time to digest the smallest pieces of information about Mr. Bone before passing the most superlative of judgments. None of the critics had any context for Mr. Bone beyond what they had seen in Internet snippets, or even just mere headlines.
When conducting due diligence, judgments, assessments, and characterizations must be reserved until all the evidence is thoroughly collected and weighed on its merits. Because it is impossible to conduct a truly exhaustive investigation, judgments must be qualified relative to the amount and quality of information collected.
Of course, there are lessons for Mr. Bone as well, which he already seems to have acknowledged:
Bone gave away the key to his privacy. However unfair the judgment that befell Mr. Bone, and however cathartic the whole experience may ultimately have turned out, the whole incident could have been avoided if he had considered the potential for his anonymous comments to be associated with his identity. Had he created a “throwaway,” a temporary new username for one-time use, it would have been nearly impossible for the casual internet troll to have found the comment history attached to his regular username. This is a regular and effective practice in the Reddit community.
Bone responded quickly, and with optimal effectiveness. Mr. Bone did two things right in his response to the controversy. First, he apologized, quickly, for the things that truly required an apology (his comments about Jennifer Lawrence, for example). But he also acknowledged the public’s confusion over the duality of his online persona, while simultaneously insisting on providing context for those of his comments that had been interpreted uncharitably.
The key takeaway from the Ken Bone Affair for the due diligence practitioner is that assumptions are made too easily, too quickly, and too often by everyone.
The art of due diligence is not so much found in the capacity to gather information about someone’s background (we are indeed now living in an information-glutted era), but rather in the ability to suspend judgment until the right moment and the willingness for that judgment to be shaped precisely to reality. This process requires conscientious intellectual work at every moment of its execution.
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