We are approaching the halfway mark of Black History Month, our "annual observance in the United States, Canada, and the United Kingdom for remembrance of important people and events in the history of the African diaspora." On the positive side, Black History Month highlights people who have done amazing things to make all of our lives better and helps us remember the awful stains on history they overcame to be so amazing. But in the past week, thanks to archived social media history, we find that some of these stains are fresh. In particular, on February 5, 2015 we learned that in October 2013, Benjamin Cole, a senior policy and communications advisor to Representative Aaron Schock (R-IL) and a "a former Baptist pastor and energy industry spokesman," posted a series of racists comments on his Facebook page. As a result of this revelation, he was forced to resign this past week. And as a further result of this revelation, we are reminded that what we post on social media is part of our permanent public record.
When I reached out to the author of the revelation, ThinkProgress.org reporter Josh Israel, he commented that, "as many on the right seek to dismantle the Voting Rights Act and create loopholes to allow public accommodations discrimination, it is instructive to look at what those in public office and their top advisers are saying and doing. When prominent Washington names are attending David Duke conferences and posting comments like these on Facebook, we clearly have a long ways to go."
Yes, smack dab in the middle of Black History Month 2015, we see that not only is racial discrimination still a part of our country, but that it still underlies the mindset of some who are formulating our national policy in Congress. Instead of recounting the offensive Facebook comments Cole posted here, I will just post a link to the Buzzfeed article where they are reprinted.
You can make your judgments about Cole's posts later. For now, I want to turn your attention to a broader issue that emerges from this revelation. What we say on social media sticks around for a long, long time. When we go in for a job interview, prospective employers can dig up our old posts.
Remember that lost night under the spigot of your friend's beer bong? Apparently not. But don't worry, Facebook saved it for you and your prospective employer.
Remember that political argument you had with that troll on Twitter? You said some pretty outlandish things. Sure, you were baited into saying them, but they are still out there. You can delete them, but the Library of Congress probably has them archived, as does Topsy.com. And if you are an elected official and try to delete errant tweets, the Sunlight Foundation's Politwoops will save them for public consumption.
So while it might be true that on the internet nobody knows you are a dog, they will be able to find every bark you posted to social media. Or as Mick Jagger once wrote, "...these days it's all secrecy and no privacy."
I often get on a rant about the difference between knowing how to use social media and knowing how to use it strategically. Normally, this is in reference to hiring social media staff for an electoral campaign or advocacy organization. But this concern also applies to personal branding and the damage that can be done when a person overshares on social media.
Perhaps the most revealing conversation I have had about oversharing on social media came in the Q&A after a keynote I gave to an American Psychological Association conference. At first, someone in the audience asked me about his privacy concerns and social media. I quickly said that people should not post things they don't want other people to know. But the discussion quickly shifted to several of the psychologists raising concerns about their patients who might overshare their diagnoses on social media. They were concerned that some among us, specifically their patients, did not always possess the necessary filters to know what not to share.
In the case of Ben Cole, we see that oversharing is not just the problem of the mentally ill. Some people just don't get that what they share can reveal something deeply private and they may regret it. At the same time, most of us may deeply appreciate when a racist outs himself on social media so we can remove him from a job where his prejudices can do others harm.
Perhaps the problem is that in order to know that posting racist comments on social media is bad you have to understand that racism is bad. That is a corollary to the research, so eloquently described by John Cleese that finds that some people are too stupid to realize that they are stupid.