05 Jun 2018 18:43 IST

Look before you post on social media

Now, consequences of inappropriate comments on social media can occur in a matter of hours | ymgerman/iStock

To say that your online behaviour could change your life for the worse is not an exaggeration

Last year, I had written a column about reckless online behaviour, when Harvard University rescinded its admission offers to 10 students (of the incoming class of 2021) for allegedly posting insensitive comments online.

Bad enough as that was, there were some saving graces. For one thing, the students were disciplined by Harvard, months after the action came to its attention . Second, there was probably an internal inquiry of some sort — meaning someone at the institute deliberated for some time before arriving at a decision. Although, the students were never given a chance to defend themselves.

But what happened last week in the US was shocking, both for the racism in a star’s Twitter post, and the near-instant decision of the ABC Television network to cancel her show and fire her.

The case in point

Roseanne Barr, a comedian, had a great run at creating her popular sitcom in the 1990s, Roseanne. After an exile from the harsh world of klieg lights for nearly 20 years, she came back with a bang earlier this spring with a continuation of her show on ABC.

Again called Roseanne, it brought back the original cast intact. The storylines had been cleverly modified to accommodate life’s basic changes, and the show continued to depict a middle-class family, whose stature has risen since Trump’s election. Many of the lines were pro-Trump — shocking in Hollywood, where Trump is viscerally hated.

Ratings soared as many of those middle-class voters tuned in. Roseanne had one of the best performances of a show coming back to life in the history of modern television. ABC was making a lot of money, although its executives were uncomfortable with some of the lines — and with the private rants of Roseanne, the star, on online platforms.

Inappropriate comments

This week, Roseanne unleashed comments on Twitter when she characterised Valerie Jarrett, former President Obama’s close confidant, as a ‘monkey’. Jarrett, who is black, didn’t respond, but Twitterverse and the media exploded at the insult.

Roseanne first defended her tweets, then apologised. But within a few hours, ABC had cancelled her show. A single tweet not only terminated her resurrected career, it also sent hundreds of support people and cast members of the show to the unemployment line.

Swift judgement

So why is this story important? Because now, consequences of inappropriate comments on social media can occur in a matter of hours. There’s never any chance for the offender to defend himself or herself. In effect, an entire person’s career simply stops. The person is here today and gone tomorrow. All for one error.

We have seen this kind of swift judgement occur during the #Metoo movement six months ago. Careers of nearly 100 public personalities experienced the equivalent of a plane crash.

Social media networks are terrible places to express discontent or be insensitive. The platforms never forget what you say and your message spreads like wildfire around the globe. And if anyone thinks their comment is only seen by friends on their list, I say to that person: think again. Your post could land on a future decision-maker’s desk, someone who has control over your career — or even life.

Online surveillance

Actually, life and death. When the San Bernardino shootings happened in the US, the perpetrators were an American-born male, who had been radicalised in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan, and his wife. When she was still his fiancée in Pakistan, she had been even more radicalised than him, and posted pro-Jihad sentiments quite extensively on Facebook.

But the US consulate in Karachi was under specific instructions by the Obama administration to not look at a person’s social media posts in determining whether a person was a potential threat to the country. The FBI too did not look at her posts while granting her a Green Card. Had she been denied entry or placed under surveillance, perhaps the shootings would never have occurred.

The Trump administration has now instructed consulates to ask for social media account information going back five years for all applicants of US visas. So to say that your online behaviour could be scrutinised by someone who has control over your life is not an exaggeration.

Cost of engagement

It is time therefore to restate the golden rule: If you’re posting anything on social media that you would hesitate to tell your parents, siblings or teachers, better delete the text and start over.

Life is a careful dance of costs and benefits. As long as benefits outweigh costs, we tend to indulge in activities we like. The costs of social media engagement just went up with the Roseanne firing. Crude — and even silly as it may seem — the best solution may well be to cancel out all social media accounts and stay away from these addictive platforms.

After all, life went on fine before social media was invented. At least, as a consolation, you had a career and life.