How past social media posts can trip you up
For how long will our social media history shape us? Should we be defined by posts from years ago? To what extent should we be allowed to change our views over time?
As the Australian federal election looms, candidates from the full range of the political spectrum have been forced to withdraw from the race after their past social media posts were unearthed and made part of the present day media cycle.
Candidates have been made to answer for views they had shared on contentious issues such as sexual assault, racism and homophobia and subsequently stepped down after their posts caused a mass national outcry.
Luke Creasey, the prospective Australian Labor Party candidate for Melbourne, was the most recent casualty of this phenomenon. In his statement, Creasey apologised for his comments, saying they ‘in no way reflect the views I hold today’ and counselled other people that ‘your social media footprint will follow you’.
The posts that brought Creasey down were from seven years ago. Responding to more recent online activity, Tasmanian Liberal Party candidate Jessica Whelan stepped down due to Islamaphobic comments made on Facebook in 2017, and Labor Senate candidate Wayne Kurnoth was disendorsed for a 2015 anti Semitic post on Facebook.
The views these candidates expressed were seriously divergent from the values of the parties they represented and this was a major reason they either resigned or lost the support of their party.
But this emerging trend in public life sets up a worrying precedent: will people ever be allowed to grow and improve from their past beliefs if social media posts from years ago are held against them?
Social media effectively acts as a time capsule, preserving every idle thought we may have chosen to share with our network. Intellectually, we may understand that the internet is an entirely public forum which is accessible to everyone for all time, but that knowledge has yet to truly sink in. It’s safe to say that we don’t imagine how every offhand tweet or hastily uploaded Instagram will cement our legacies in years to come, but this is becoming increasingly likely.
US comedian Kevin Hart came under fire earlier this year for homophobic tweets from a decade ago. He apologised several times in the intervening years, as well as again in 2019, but their reemergence cost him his gig hosting the Academy Awards. Controversial British comedian Ricky Gervais defended Hart, saying that Hart couldn’t ‘keep apologising’ for his past remarks saying, ‘At some point we’ve got to say, “Well, he’s not like that anymore”.’
When old social media posts are brought under scrutiny, apologies that were made in the past rarely receive the same level of publication as the offending posts. When people apologise and say that they’ve changed their perspectives, public opinion tends to either not take this into account or suggest that the person is lying to cover their tracks.
People do evolve their views over time. With greater access to varying perspectives, education and age, people’s opinions on issues are given to evolution based on new information, new personal circumstances or larger cultural shifts.
Keeping in mind that people have the capacity to change and being mindful not to judge what someone said a long time ago as the current status quo could be an appropriate approach to some less serious social media gaffes.
It can be tempting to treat social media like a journal, but given its mass broadcasting abilities it’s more like a major media outlet, so it’s probably better not to put anything on there that could be embarrassing in the future.
It’s worth bearing in mind that even in real life, going through old diaries and journals can give rise to serious ‘cringe factor’, so it’s hard to know at the time of writing how you are going to feel in future years.
Keen to avoid similar upsets? Conducting an audit of your social channels is a simple yet effective way to keep things in check.
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