Written by Mark Fox
Put your hand up if you can remember your first tweet or the subject of your first Facebook status update. It was probably something insignificant, though it’s unlikely that it was a photo of your lunch - that would come later. Those early posts seemed inconsequential. Hardly anybody used Facebook or Twitter; they were just fads. We were just speaking our minds in a passive-aggressive way and nobody was really listening.
Fast forward ten years and we share our every thought. Everything is scrutinised, right down to the last exclamation mark or emoji. Try typing “your” instead of “you’re” and see how nutty people go. Now imagine that you’re in the public spotlight. The last thing you’re thinking about when you find fame will be purging your social media accounts of those tweets of yesteryear.
We are currently seeing a new trend of celebrities and public figures being called out on historical tweets, some of which go back seven Twitter years, which in technology terms equates to around forty human years.
Each case is different and as such should be treated and judged on its own merits.
Some Recent Cases
Most recently is the public outing of Sandeep Sharma, aka DJ Limelight. Who is Sandeep Sharma? I can hear many of you ask. Well, Sharma is hardly a nobody, but the average man on the street won’t have heard of him or ever listened to his BBC Asian Network slot, and even less likely to have listened to him on his 1 AM Radio 1 show. I’m not being derisory here; in fact, it really furthers my argument. His specialty is rap music, which is hardly known for its family friendly tone. The language used in this style of music is traditionally the language you’d hear on the streets, but because Sharma is employed by the BBC, and thus the license payer, he is accountable for everything he’s ever posted. It’s a difficult position to be in. He wants to speak for the people on the streets, but he’s obliged to speak for anyone who listens to anything on the BBC.
A much higher profile casualty of this problem was the Premier League striker Andre Gray. In 2016 the Premier League Footballer, was forced to apologise for tweets he’d posted four years earlier. In 2012 the Burnley striker posted a very offensive tweet whilst he was playing non-league football. Four years on and he finds himself on the end of a four-match ban and a £25,000 fine. There is no doubt that he needed to be brought to book, though most people would argue that a fine like that wouldn’t make a great deal of a difference to the player. The bigger sting would come from him missing four games; a punishment that Burnley Football Club and its fans would have to suffer with Gray.
These two cases do have some differences but the one thing that they have in common is that if you tweet it, then you own it, and you must defend or explain it. We hope our idols, politicians and celebrities are squeaky clean and only have their minds on their jobs. But we also like to see people taking a fall from grace. Most of the time it’s not really a shock when a celebrity is reported as using non-p.c. language, or a footballer swearing at a photographer after a night out. And we’re not shocked because we’re finally coming to the realisation that we’re all human and in many of these cases they’re barely out of nappies.
Throughout history the younger selves of public figures have done and said things that would make their older and wiser selves cringe. The difference now is that everything is public and traceable. A more important question would be, is it fair to judge our public figures based on their thoughts seven years ago? And if so where does it end? When do our social media posts become irrelevant? A song I like today isn’t necessarily a song I will like next year or the year after that. It also goes that an opinion I had ten years ago doesn’t necessarily hold true today because I’m older and wiser.
To prove this point I wanted to give an example of something I’ve posted in the past that the older and wiser me would disagree with. The truth is that there isn’t really anything. I don’t hold views and opinions that are particularly right wing, sexist or offensive, though I have posted jokes in the past that, to an outsider, could be deemed as being offensive. And even though my posts are only visible to my friends and family, who accept me as the terrible joke-teller that I am, it is likely that they might have far-reaching consequences and I might someday have to explain or defend them. Everybody has to own what they post and I understand that, as a person using the Internet, I am still responsible for my posts, past and present.
Nobody wants to be judged on the things they did when they were younger and I find it hard to believe that anyone who is reporting these celebrity lapses of judgement can honestly say they’ve only ever had wholesome thoughts. Ultimately, all we’re doing is showing that they have no power in these situations and that if they want to continue in their privileged lives then they must toe the line and bow their heads in shame.
I believe that our politicians, celebrities and idols should project a wholesome image that reflects their current position in the public eye. I am also a firm believer that a person should not be punished for things they’ve said in the past in a way that directly affects people in their current life. Andre Gray is a prime example of this. Instead of being banned he could easily have gone and worked with one of the groups that link football with LGBT community and his fine should’ve been donated to similar causes. Then, at least, the punishment would have a positive and holistic outcome.
Is anyone safe from scrutiny?
There have been past cases of everyday people losing their jobs over their offensive tweets, though for some losing their jobs wasn’t the worst thing that happened.
In November 2013, 7 months after the Boston Marathon Bombing, 22-year old Alicia Ann Lynch was fired after she posted a photograph of herself dressed as a victim for a Halloween party. Lynch wasn’t famous until her post was shared and she ended up on the receiving end of a large scale cyber bullying campaign. She and her family received death threats from all over the world. It was very likely that the company that she worked for would not have wanted any negative publicity and so they fired her over the costume.
Also in 2013, two firefighters from Toronto were fired after it was revealed that they’d both posted sexist tweets. The city of Toronto has a stance on social media and they both lost their jobs because they defied that stance. This case isn’t clear cut. Their tweets in no way suggest that they are not capable of doing their jobs and there was no indication of a wider problem within the departments in which they worked. Warnings would’ve sufficed with additional work within the community to help raise female recruitment numbers. The punishment does not seem to be congruent with the crime.
It’s important to remember that when we’re reading about offensive historic tweets that the person tweeting was much younger and, likely, less famous. They should be given the opportunity to defend themselves and, if necessary, make amends. Don’t judge people solely on who they were but on who they are now. If a punishment is required then make it worthwhile and not just something that acts as a deterence.