More than 100 years before Facebook was conceived in Mark Zuckerberg’s dorm room, Mark Twain, one of America’s most beloved authors, offered some words of wisdom that make a lot of sense for social media users today:
“It is better to keep your mouth closed and let people think you are a fool than to open it and remove all doubt.”
We all have access to social media, even when we are upset about something. It seems natural to turn to social media when we want to rant about something, because that’s where all our friends are, and they’re the ones who understand us.
You Can’t Take It Back
But words delivered in anger, in a state of inebriation, or in a moment of simple pleasure on social media are much different than words spoken to a friend in the privacy of your home, or even in a bar where everyone knows you.
Once you write something down and post it online, you have lost control of your words, and making them disappear later is next to impossible.
The fact is, digital blunders can come back to bite you, big time. Even if you think that picture of you smoking in front of a No Smoking sign is just a harmless joke, you may want to think twice. This kind of seemingly innocent and off-the-cuff moment can take on a life of its own once other people have unrestricted access to it through social media.
A Case in Point
If you still believe it can’t happen to you, please read an article published in the New York Times earlier this month: How One Stupid Tweet Blew Up Justine Sacco’s Life. The article was written by Jon Ronson, a nonfiction author of several books including “The Psychopath Test” and “The Men Who Stare at Goats.” It’s an adaptation from Ronson’s latest work, “So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed,” due out in March. It’s a compelling read.
Tweeting in between flights as she traveled from JFK to Cape Town, South Africa, Sacco posted, among other things, a sarcastic tweet about HIV and white people. It didn’t take long for someone to perceive it as bigotry, and the Twitterverse exploded in indignation.
One of the more revealing facts from Sacco’s brush with social media-induced shame is that she only had 170 Twitter followers. And yet her “innocent” tweet became an international Twitter incident during the 11-hour final leg of her flight. By the time she landed in Cape Town, tens of thousands of people were tweeting their outrage and demanding she be fired, which she eventually was.
You Never Know What Will Get You Fired
Although Justine Sacco’s story serves as the unifying theme for Ronson’s article, he details the brutal aftermath of case after case where “poorly considered jokes” –a photo mocking a sign asking for silence and respect at Arlington National Cemetery; a bloody Halloween costume resembling Boston Marathon victims — were responsible for people losing their jobs and finding themselves treated like pariahs by strangers and former friends alike.
The effects of one social media mistake can be ruinous financially. In nearly every case Ronson mentions, the offending person was fired, and was often too notorious in the incident’s aftermath to find another job — or even leave the house.
Yet the financial consequences often pale in comparison to the emotional strain and public shame. Public shaming is nothing new in America. Our country has a long history of using public shaming as punishment, dating back a couple of centuries before Mark Twain came on the scene.
Getting fired and publicly humiliated isn’t the only way a social media blunder can take its toll. Insurance companies now routinely comb popular social media sites to uncover insurance fraud, whether deliberate or accidental.
“Checking social media accounts has become one of the first things an insurance company or adjuster will do when you file a claim,” insurance attorney Frank Darras told Edmunds.com.
It’s hard to defend your disability insurance claim when you’ve posted Facebook photos of yourself bench pressing at the gym, or YouTube videos of your band on tour. A man who insured his sports car for $2 million was uncovered as a fraudster after someone posted a video of him intentionally driving the car into a swamp.
You don’t even have to be trying to commit fraud to be burned. Posting the wrong photo of yourself or your car after you report an accident could derail your auto claim. Submitting a homeowners claim for water damage? Don’t post that photo of yourself trying to install a new sink right before the damage happened; if the company thinks you’ve violated the terms of your insurance, they could potentially decline your claim, leaving you on the hook for thousands of dollars in repairs.
So What Can You Do?
Listing the causes of social media meltdowns in the past is scant help for the future. So much of what devastated individual lives was taken out of context.
Of course, you should pause for a moment and think twice before posting anything online. Wait 10 seconds, and then reconsider: Do you really need to post this?
But even then, trying to predict how something said in jest or in innocence might be taken out of context is like trying to predict the weather – even with everything we know, it still can’t be done with perfect accuracy.
There is simply no way to give blanket advice for avoiding this kind of scenario. People are beginning to realize how vulnerable they are, and this is giving rise to apps where posts disappear and can’t be screen-captured.
But even with those safeguards, we’ve already seen abuses. Like everything else, social media has a dark side. It makes sense to just keep that in mind – all the time.