Do you know, right now, what the Internet is saying about you?
Could one careless tweet cost you your job? Are nude photos of you lingering on your ex’s smartphone? Could one angry customer trash your small business? Will a potential romance cool because of what’s been posted about you online?
How likely is it that any of that will happen? After all, stories of troll attacks, revenge porn, sexting scandals, e-mail hacks, cam hijackings, cyber bullying, and screen shots gone viral fill our newsfeeds. According to a 2014 Pew Research Center survey, 73 percent of adult Internet users say they have witnessed online harassment and 65 percent of adult Internet users under the age of 30 have personally experienced it. Given events like the 2014 Sony Pictures e-mail hack that leaked studio heads’ private messages and the 2015 Ashley Madison breach that revealed the identities of millions of alleged philanderers, it is clear that we are all potentially one click away from being thrust into the Internet glare.
And what awaits us there? A nation of finger-wagging vultures who delight in tormenting us and tearing our reputations to shreds. In a 2014 survey conducted by YouGov, 28 percent of Americans admitted to engaging in malicious online activity directed at somebody they didn’t even know. How have we become this “Shame Nation,” hurling our collective outrage at an endless supply of fresh victims? This even though the most extreme cases of online harassment repeatedly lead to worst-case repercussions: adults losing their livelihoods and young people taking their own lives.
Of course, shaming in America dates as far back as the days of the Puritans. Just a generation ago, an embarrassing gaffe might have been written up in the local paper or gossiped about over backyard fences until it was old news. But the Internet has the potential for eternal life and boundless reach, and victims of a digital disaster must live with the implications of that high-tech “tattoo.” Who are today’s victims of digital shaming? Potentially, any one of us. Anger your ex, and your nude photos could show up on MyEx.com, a site dedicated to the practice of revenge porn. Bad tipper? You could be dubbed a cheapskate on your local deliveryman’s Tumblr page. Cut off a fellow mom in the drop-off line at school, and you could find yourself trashed on Facebook later that morning. In the Boston area, we’ve seen Internet harassment disrupt the life of Mansfield native Jen Royle, who endured sustained hazing and bullying on Twitter while she was a sports reporter in Baltimore. The attacks followed her even after she came back to Boston to work at WEEI (she’s now a private chef). Lena Chen, who started writing a blog about sex while she was a student at Harvard, there, was subjected to a years-long electronic abuse campaign that widened to include her boyfriend and even her readers. Ultimately, Chen and her boyfriend moved to Europe, and she stopped blogging.
Danielle Keats Citron, author of 2016’s Hate Crimes in Cyberspace, estimates that 30 to 40 percent of us will experience digital shaming at some point in our lifetime. “You never escape it,” Citron, a law professor at the University of Maryland, told The New York Times. “When you post something really damaging, reputationally damaging, about someone online, it’s searchable and seeable. And you can’t erase it.”
Of course, many of today’s digital debacles come from our own slips in judgment. One of the best-known cases involved Justine Sacco, a public relations director from New York who was flying to South Africa. Her sardonic tweet — “Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!” — set off one of the first ever Twitter mobbings. Then there was Plymouth resident Lindsey Stone — an image of her irreverently flipping off a sign at Arlington National Cemetery that read “Silence And Respect” enraged veterans and ultimately got her fired. Or the Michigan woman whose Halloween costume, “Boston Marathon bombing victim,” outraged an entire city.
So is all this to say that you shouldn’t have any online presence at all? Of course not. Going off the grid is just not an option — and it won’t save you. Even Internet bystanders can wind up mocked online. A nurse snapped photos of a man undergoing surgery and texted them to colleagues for a laugh (the nurse was reported and fired). A 70-year-old woman showering at her gym after a workout had her photo posted on Snapchat, complete with a callous remark (the poster, a high-profile Playboy model, was fired from her job, pleaded no contest to a misdemeanor violation of privacy, and was sentenced to community service).
From a professional standpoint, you’ll be light-years behind other job seekers if you haven’t maintained your virtual footprint. Having no online history is just as risky as having a spotty one — employers may wonder what you have to hide or assume you aren’t tech savvy. A 2016 CareerBuilder survey found that 41 percent of employers were less likely to interview candidates if they couldn’t find them online. Many careers now require us to participate publicly in social media and to maintain a digital presence. “In an economy that demands an online presence, we can no longer view online abuse as simply a virtual problem,” says Massachusetts congresswoman Katherine Clark, one of the leading proponents of federal laws against cyber harassment. Those who have tried opting out of social media as an experiment often report feeling disconnected and even ostracized from their social circles. As journalist Nancy Jo Sales, author of the 2016 book American Girls: Social Media and the Secret Lives of Teenagers, relates, “I spoke to girls who said, ‘Social media is destroying our lives. But we can’t go off it, because then we’d have no life.’ ”
For better or worse, being a vocal member of our digital nation is practically a modern-day requirement. That’s why more than ever, we need to practice digital wisdom, to prevent ourselves and our loved ones from becoming victims of a digital debacle. These five strategies give you some power to control many of these situations.
1. Be cyber savvy
Create a simple Google alert that will notify you when your name is mentioned online. When setting up the alert, be sure to put your name in quotation marks, and don’t forget to create additional alerts for any variations of your name that you use. These won’t necessarily catch every time your name is mentioned, especially in things like blog posts. So perform a Google search on yourself regularly. Keep up with your social media settings, checking them and securing them often. Privacy settings have a tendency to change without notice, so losing track of your settings can lead to unexpected — and unpleasant — surprises.
Weed out so-called friends on your social media accounts. Distinguishing real friends from cyber friends can cut back on the chance of your personal information getting into the wrong hands. Social media platforms such as Facebook and Twitter provide features for you to build select groups of friends and family, so you can share comments and photos with your intended recipients only.
If your college or employer has a social media policy in place, follow its guidelines for what’s out of bounds. If in doubt, ask your human resources department.
2. Claim your social media profile
The best thing you can do before a digital disaster strikes is to stake a claim to your name and create a positive Internet persona.
“Most people think that an online attack would never happen to them — or they underestimate just how severe it can be,” says Rich Matta, CEO of reputation management company ReputationDefender. “But it’s like that old saying: An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”
Create accounts on Twitter, Facebook, and LinkedIn, even if you don’t want to build up a presence on them right now. This will help you “own’’ your name, and since these sites often rank near the top of online searches, can help you limit the damage if someone attempts to malign you electronically.
“It’s always easier to combat the duration and severity of an online attack if you already control the sites at the top of your search results, your social accounts, and other online assets prior to the attack,” Matta explains. “These sites alone give you the potential to control three of the ten positions on page one of your search results.”
3. Scrub your past
Social media postings from long ago can get you in hot water later. One South Shore mother interviewing a potential nanny discovered an inappropriate video buried four pages deep in a Google search. Do you think she hired that applicant? Of course not. But she never said a word about why she chose not to hire the young woman — deliberately leaving the video for other potential employers to discover.
Try recalling whether there are any abandoned or embarrassing accounts of yours lingering in cyberspace. Do you still have angst-ridden poetry up on Myspace? Lyrics you’ve quoted that might be misinterpreted by a potential employer? You may want to “backstalk” yourself and consider setting questionable images to private. You can also visit JustDelete.me, a directory of links to abandoned accounts on services from AOL to Zynga, where you can delete them.
The online reputation firm BrandYourself offers a basic scan of your Google search results, plus your social media history on Facebook and Twitter, that will turn up “damaging, controversial, explicit, and risky posts.” It’s not a bad idea to run an image search on your name as well. Toni Birdsong, a family safety evangelist for security software maker McAfee, recommends looking not only at what you’ve posted, but also at things other people have posted publicly that you’ve liked. “Others could judge you guilty by association,” she writes. She also suggests taking the time to clean up your “like’’ history on Facebook Activity Log.
4. Protect your present
Is your personal information scattered all over the Web? Real estate records are public, so it’s hard to protect your home address from being listed without resorting to extreme measures, such as setting up a trust and a post office box. However, you can pay to keep your landline number unlisted. Lindsay Blackwell, an anti-harassment researcher, recommends using a Google Voice phone number that forwards to your personal phone number but can later be disconnected, for added security. If you’re creating your own website, you can also keep the contact information private by purchasing domain privacy when you set up the site. Once this information has been posted, it is difficult to have it removed, so consider it a small investment in the future.
You may also want to avoid uploading a resume that includes your home address. In some states, boating records and voter registration lists are published online unless you opt out. You can opt out of online white pages like Spokeo, Pipl, and PeopleSmart by filling out a request, although it can be a Sisyphean task — there are more than 200 such data-collecting services.
Security expert Theresa Payton, CEO of Fortalice Solutions, advises against using free Wi-Fi, because you don’t know the security team or the protocols in place. “I equate free Wi-Fi to using a toothbrush you found on the ground — you wouldn’t use that because it’s free, right?” she asks. Instead, she recommends using your smartphone or a portable Internet hot spot as your Internet connection.
5. Public and permanent
The Library of Congress is documenting every single public tweet. Sites like snapbird.org allow you to search old tweets going back much further than the Twitter search engine currently allows. Even old versions of websites that you redesigned ages ago are still viewable, thanks to the Wayback Machine, an Internet archive that crawls the Web and preserves pages. Search your own website to see what information lingers there.
Know that everything you put out there has the possibility of becoming “Public and Permanent,” an expression coined by Richard Guerry, founder of the Institute for Responsible Online and Cellphone Communication. “Far too many people with technology are not stopping to think about the long-term repercussions of their actions,” he says. Guerry advocates for digital consciousness — always posting with the awareness that anything you’ve documented could be disseminated. “Think about your legacy,” he says. “It’s not just imagining [that] your 90-year-old grandma will see your naughty text but [that] your own grandkids will too.”