It’s the moment every sportsman waits their life for. Ollie Robinson was 27 years and his career as a professional cricketer had been troubled. Fired at 20 from one team for “unprofessional conduct”—he preferred partying to training—he found his way to a different team. He knuckled down, worked hard, and rebuilt his reputation. Seven years later, he received what every professional cricketer wants the most: a call to join the national squad.
The game started with both teams sharing a “moment of unity” while wearing t-shirts carrying anti-discrimination messages. But as the game progressed, tweets that Robinson had posted almost a decade earlier when he was aged 18 and 19 started to go viral on Twitter. The tweets were racist and sexist, the kind of thoughtless jokes that teenagers often make, recall as adults, and cringe.
The result though, was more than embarrassment. Robinson was banned for eight games and fined £3,200 ($4,413). Offensive comments that he had made when he was still a teenager, and probably forgotten, had come back to haunt him and put a break in his reborn career just as it was taking off.
Robinson, of course, isn’t the only person to have faced a form of cancellation after old, embarrassing social media posts have surfaced. Alexi McCammond, a politics reporter at Axios, recently lost her position as editor-in-chief of Teen Vogue before she had started after decade-old racist and homophobic tweets came to light. In June this year, Kelly Stewart lost her position as a sports betting analyst at ESPN after just a month when homophobic tweets from 2012 resurfaced. And these incidents aren’t new. A list of 13 people who lost their jobs after tweeting dates to 2011. They include a new employee at Cisco who lost her job offer after tweeting that she’d love the money but hate the work; a law fellow at New York University lost his fellowship after posting crass comments about sexual assault; a comedian who made an offensive joke about the Japanese tsunami was fired by the Japanese insurance company for whose ads he had recorded voices; and an actress on Glee was told to find a new career after excitedly tweeting plot spoilers.
What all of these cases have in common is the careless use of social media that have cost people their jobs, their careers, or their prospects. Sometimes that careless use dated back ten years or more, included comments that they no longer believed and that no longer represented who they were, and yet the effect was still strong enough to impact them in the present.
Nor is people crawling through ancient social media posts for embarrassing, drunken or juvenile opinions the only threat to careers. Experts warn that even simply citing an opinion that goes against the zeitgeist can produce a disproportionate response and a threatening response from people who disagree.
“We also increasingly see cases of so-called ‘hashtag activism’ where social media is weaponized, either in the form of online harassment or doxxing, and used against an executive who has taken a stand on a polarizing issue,” says Aaron Gervais of Reputation Defender, a reputation management firm. “These incidents can lead to threats in the real world against the executive and their family, not to mention reputational harm against them and their businesses.”
A recent article in The Atlanticdescribes the effect that the weaponizing of social media and the canceling of people who express unpopular opinions is having on social debate. Anne Applebaum cites a composer who had criticized on Instagram an arson attack during a Black Lives Matter demonstration; his music is no longer performed. Professors face secret investigations and the loss of students and fellowships after writing blog posts about race and other controversial topics.
“The modern online public sphere, a place of rapid conclusions, rigid ideological prisms, and arguments of 280 characters, favors neither nuance nor ambiguity,” Applebaum writes. “Yet the values of that online sphere have come to dominate many American cultural institutions: universities, newspapers, foundations, museums. Heeding public demands for rapid retribution, they sometimes impose the equivalent of lifetime scarlet letters on people who have not been accused of anything remotely resembling a crime. Instead of courts, they use secretive bureaucracies. Instead of hearing evidence and witnesses, they make judgments behind closed doors.”
And the threat isn’t limited to offensive comments by executives and questionable opinions among academics. A recent post on the Reputation Defender’s blog outlines a host of threats that can strike business leaders. Doxxing—the publication of someone’s personal information in order to bring harassment into the real world—might violate Twitter policies but it remains a problem. Facebook accounts are at risk from fake friend invitations, phishing attacks, and the accidental divulging of private information that increase the risk of robbery and other offenses. Even LinkedIn is plagued by fake accounts used by anonymous holders to trawl for information and opportunities to commit fraud.
This Affects You Too
The cases of new hires who have lost their jobs because of their old posts tend to focus on people in senior positions: a player on a national team; the editor-in-chief of a fashion magazine; an analyst on a television show. Aaron Gervais cites a 2019 Verizon study that found C-suite executives are twelve times more likely to face social engineering attacks than the average person. Hashtag activism—campaigns waged against companies seen as causing political harm—are more likely to focus on the leaders of the company than on local marketing managers. The higher up the ladder you climb, the bigger a target you appear.
But the danger in posting fast and forgetting quickly is relevant for everyone, not just those on high salaries and with “chief” in their job titles. One recent survey of 505 US employers found that 90 percent consider a job candidate’s social media account when they make their hiring decisions—and 79 percent have rejected a candidate because of that content. The reasons for rejecting a candidate include hate speech; images of heavy partying or drug use; Illegal or illicit content; confidential or sensitive content about a former employer; and even poor grammar.
“It can happen to anyone,” warns Aaron Gervais. “If you’re searching for a job or facing some kind of due diligence, you may find that old social media posts come back to haunt you.”
But social media has been around for a long time. Facebook launched 17 years ago and Twitter is only two years younger. Candidates applying for the first jobs have grown up in an age in which every opinion and event is shared online and that sharing is made permanent. Every youthful mistake and juvenile thought can now be preserved forever—and there’s plenty of material for employers, rivals, and campaigners to trawl through.
If your Instagram account contains old pictures of your sorority parties, if you cracked a joke about smoking weed under a friend’s Facebook post, if you got into a heated argument on Twitter and said something you regret—or even just forget to capitalize your words or check your spelling—you could find that you lose a job you’ve always wanted.
So what can you do to make sure that your past social media presence isn’t blocking your future?
Delete, Then Treat
The most obvious step is to scroll through your old posts and delete anything that looks embarrassing. That’s fine if you’re just starting out and you don’t think you’ll need to explain the big gaps in your social media output. But the road to a high career position usually passes through mid-career positions in which your old posts might not be worth mentioning but they could be worth preserving as images or screenshots.
Deleting your old posts doesn’t always guarantee that they’ll be gone forever. Your act of self-censorship might only tell other people that you know you’ve posted something you shouldn’t have done. After President Biden withdrew US forces from Kabul, granting control of the city and the airport to the Taliban, the Republican National Committee quietly deleted a page from its website praising President Trump’s deal with the Taliban that foreshadowed the withdrawal. The party said that the page was removed as part of “routine web maintenance” but it had been screenshotted and the removal itself looked suspicious. The very act of deleting the page made the party look ashamed of something that it had been proud of.
Twitter is filled with people reporting that someone has deleted a post but they’ve screenshotted it.
And deleting old posts raises the question of which problematic posts you should delete.
“‘Problematic’ is often in the eye of the beholder,” says Aaron Gervais. “A post that might seem innocuous to a certain person in a certain context could be explosive to someone else in a different context. Many times, it’s not the original social post itself that causes reputational damage, but an article or blog post that includes the social post and interprets it in a certain light, which then gets shared widely in social and traditional media.”
In other words, not only do you have to worry about the obvious embarrassing posts that you made on Facebook, Instagram or Twitter when you were a teenager; but as you climb the career ladder and build your personal brand, you also have to worry about the posts that aren’t embarrassing but which others can use against you.
In addition to removing harmful posts and shutting down old accounts you no longer use then, it’s also a good idea to add new content to counteract any negative effect from the old ones.
“The most important thing people can do is take control of the online narrative,” advises Gervais. “Make sure to publish truthful, accurate information about yourself on sites that you control, such as a LinkedIn profile or a personal website, and keep it up to date. You want these materials to appear when people search for you online.”
Google yourself regularly to check your progress and if you hit trouble then talking to reputation management firm can help.
But perhaps the best approach is to remember that social media is a public space, and not to say anything in it that you don’t want the world to hear. There’s a limit to what you can do about the damaging posts you’ve made in the past, but you can keep your career on track by being cautious about what you post now and in the future.