More Evidence that Online Privacy is an Oxymoron

Indefensible Tweets, Posts and Text Messages Continue to Trigger Crises   

7/24/19 – – The late, great syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer described tweets as, “a direct conduit from the unfiltered id . . . they erase whatever membrane normally exists between one’s internal disturbances and their external manifestations.” There’s been plenty of evidence in the news lately to support Dr. Krauthammer’s diagnosis.

How else can we explain recently revealed online indiscretions by the Governor of Puerto Rico, a police officer in Louisiana and members of the United States Border Patrol? Despite the fact that career-ending, crisis-triggering tweets, posts and text messages are being uncovered at an alarming rate, otherwise respected people in positions of authority continue to ignore the risks of unfettered dialogue on social media.

While there are many reasons for the current political and social unrest in Puerto Rico, it was the explosive leak of 900 pages of text messages between Governor Ricardo Rossello and his top aides that drove people into the streets calling for the Governor’s resignation. In addition to mocking singer Ricky Martin, referring to former speaker of the New York City Council Melissa Mark-Viverito as a “whore,” and making light of Puerto Rican citizens who lost their lives during Hurricane Maria, Governor Rossello texted “You’d be doing me a grand favor” in response to a message from the island’s chief financial officer expressing his desire to shoot the Mayor of San Juan.  

Charles Rispoli, a 14-year veteran of the Gretna, Louisiana, police force, lost his job this week after suggesting in a Facebook post that “vile idiot” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez “needs a round, and I don’t mean the kind she used to serve.” (The Congresswoman from New York’s 14th District was a bartender before running for office.) A fellow Gretna officer who “liked” Rispoli’s post was fired as well.

And earlier this month, ProPublica uncovered a secret Facebook group in which members of U.S. Border Patrol, “joked about deaths of migrants, discussed throwing burritos at Latino members of Congress visiting a detention facility in Texas Monday and posted a vulgar illustration depicting Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez engaged in oral sex with a detained immigrant.”

In Chapter 3 of The Crisis Preparedness Quotient – Measuring Your Readiness to Weather a Reputational Storm (“Where Crises Come From”), we focus on nine common sources of survival-threatening situations: People, Products, Priorities, Policies, Performance, Politics, Procrastination, Privacy and Past. It is the false assumption of Privacy in our digital world that lands so many people and organizations in hot water. Boy, it was a lot easier to stay out of trouble before smart phones, email and social media.

How can companies prevent such digital debacles?

Above all, hire good people and maintain a culture that rejects the acceptance of abhorrent thoughts like those expressed in the examples above. Bad people don’t magically turn into monsters online. They reveal their issues and insecurities in the analog world as well. Pay attention to the signs of trouble and act before you get an email from a reporter with screenshots of indefensible posts.

And with privacy becoming increasingly difficult to protect – our thoughts, even if expressed in awkward jest, live on forever – it’s wise crisis prevention to regularly remind employees of the commonsense rules of email communication and social media etiquette. Confidentiality within even a secret Facebook group is as ephemeral as it was at the in-crowd table in the high school cafeteria in the movie “Mean Girls.” Before you hit “send,” consider how comfortable you would be if your thoughts were projected on a big-screen TV in court, quoted in an article on the front page of The New York Times, or read out loud to your mother!

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