The Mirror with a Memory

By Carl Hausman

For some people, the results of a Google search have become a potentially life-altering event. Past indiscretions may live forever — or at least make the immediate future uncomfortable. A Mashable technology writer reports that he’s currently attempting to help his son, a junior in high school, whose name was picked up by a local paper after a minor police citation. His interaction with the court system now appears near the top of Google search results, “immortalized” for college admissions officers — about 35 percent of whom, according to a 2012 survey from the Kaplan test preparation firm, say they discovered negative information online that damaged students’ chances of getting into college.

Mistaken identity can lead to confusion or worse. In some cases, the uncertainty is benign. A search for my name can lead you to: a teenage journalist, unrelated to me, who covers kids’ issues for a New Jersey website; a philosopher, also unrelated, who writes books that I clearly could not write or understand (see the title, Pragmatism Considers Phenomenology); and a piano player of some renown. Such confusion is probably a net benefit for me, leading the curious to think my life is far more interesting than it is because I am adept at skateboarding, analyses of phenomenology, and jazz riffs.

But if mug shots of a bank robber with an identical name surfaced near the top of the results, I likely would not be so complacent

Perhaps most ominously, though, an internet-savvy tormentor with a grudge can shape public perception of you on a worldwide stage. A recent book by James Lasdun, for example, recounts the novelist-professor’s struggle with an apparently emotionally disturbed woman (at least in his version) who attacked him as a racist in anonymous Amazon reviews, altered his Wikipedia page, and dropped various accusations of plagiarism and sexual indiscretions — and, in the words of Bloomberg reporter Sarah Hepola, created “a foggy and paranoid list of grievances that’s ingeniously hard to combat.”

At the core of internet reputation dilemmas are various legal issues that could be impossible to resolve due to First Amendment protections as well as ethical issues that probably won’t provide a definitive solution either but at least can guide the debate over how we handle a medium in which information can live forever and is accessible anywhere.

Among them:

  • What duty does a reputable internet user have to “unpublish”? Should a newspaper delve into its online archives to eradicate information about criminal charges if the case against the defendant turns out to have been based on faulty information? If a court decides to expunge a defendant’s record, should a news organization follow suit and remove all stories about the original conviction?
  • Along the same lines, is there a statute of limitations on indiscretions? Fifteen years ago, if a young reporter was found to have plagiarized parts of an article, the typical punishment might have been a suspension and a citation about the plagiarism in the paper along with an expression of editorial regret. But 15 years ago, the archives of a paper were on dusty shelves in a basement; today, such a notation might appear near the top of search engine results for years, becoming something of an electronic — and indelible — scarlet letter. Should there be a time period after which certain information is removed?
  • Do young people deserve special protections against social media exposure? As absurd as it might appear, some of the most visible media coverage of the upcoming spring break season is advice on how to avoid bad behavior that can produce a long-living stigma. As author and parent advocate Sue Scheff warns in the Huffington Post: “It’s necessary for us to not only talk to our kids about the dangers that they face online, but also to remind them of the importance of their virtual manners. What our children need to understand — especially teens that will be applying to colleges and their first time jobs — is that their online image is just as important as their parent’s or any other adult’s in business today.” Do social-media sites thus have a duty to protect young people from themselves? Should such sites take a more active role in scrubbing potentially compromising photos not only from the user’s site but also from places where it is reposted?
  • Should reputable — or even disreputable, for that matter — sites crack down on anonymity? While anonymous postings can afford laudable protection for outing of the truth in the face of possible retribution, they also allow for the reverse: retribution that has no linkage to the truth. Without accountability, anonymous forums can produce virally libelous material that spreads and mutates beyond control.

Perhaps technology might produce at least a partial answer to some of the problems related to online reputation. Several firms are offering applications that allow photos and emails to self-destruct on a timeline determined by the sender — anything from days to seconds. The goal, of course, is to prevent material from being reposted and forwarded until it spawns viral infamy. (If only real life came with a self-destruct command for past indiscretion!)

What’s your view? Are there any ethical ideas or approaches that you use to tame a medium that has become a “mirror with a memory,” an appellation originally applied more than a hundred years ago to the nascent art of photography?



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Carl Hausman is Professor of Journalism at Rowan University, the author of several books about media, and a commentator about the role of media and ethics in civic life.

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