Trial by social media: ‘At 16 or 17 we were f***ing nuts’
The departure of Teen Vogue’s new editor is a salutary tale for anyone active on social media
“Context has become very unfashionable. We don’t want to wait for the person’s explanation where they describe why they behaved the way they did.” Photograph: Mikimad/Getty images
Exactly six years ago this month, British writer Jon Ronson published So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed, having spent three years traveling the world meeting victims of high-profile shamings. In that book he explored how public shaming, the kind that plays out on social media, is now used as a form of social control, a more democratic, if often problematic, alternative to the traditional justice system. Having written the definitive book on these incidents, he is regularly asked to comment when new ones emerge.
The latest comment-worthy case involves Alexi McCammond (27), a Washington-based political journalist who this week should have been starting as editor of Teen Vogue, having been appointed by Condé Nast’s Anna Wintour. Instead, she resigned from the job before it even began after racist and homophobic tweets posted by McCammond on social media a decade ago, when she was 17, resurfaced.
She had previously deleted and apologised for the anti-Asian tweets, and Condé Nast was aware of them when she was hired. She was on course to be the third black editor of Teen Vogue, but exposure of her past posts along with pressure from staff at the magazine and advertisers, all against a backdrop of the recent spate of anti-Asian hate crimes in the US, led to a statement from Condé Nast and McCammond: “We agreed that it was best to part ways so as to not overshadow the important work happening at Teen Vogue.”
Speaking on the phone from New York, Ronson begins his response to McCammond’s forced resignation by saying “social media justice” was set up to “right the wrongs” of the conventional justice system. “And there were and are some big wrongs,” he says, “especially when it comes to sexual assault.
“The problem is that there are some good things about the justice system,” he adds, giving as one example, the fact that in a traditional courtroom hearing, we get to hear about the context of a transgression.
“Context has become very unfashionable,” he says. “We don’t want to wait for the person’s explanation where they describe why they behaved the way they did. In this case she [McCammond] was a child. She was 17-years-old. In the justice system, children’s criminal records are sealed because we aren’t judged as adults by the things we did when we were underage. We are a mess when we are kids, our brains need time to mature and we need to be able to grow.”
What happened to McCammond is a salutary tale for anyone active on social media
What happened to McCammond “feels wrong by any ethical, moral standards …” Ronson continues: “Do we want to start showing potential employers the records of child criminals? Children are protected for a reason because people realise they should be treated differently to adults as they need a chance to mature. At 16 or 17 we were f**king nuts.
“I should say I am not an evangelist about this stuff. I frequently annoy people who like my book by saying I thought that a person did deserve some consequences.” But in the case of Alexi McCammond, who he says “has led a good life, tries to do good and has apologised”, he believes it is “the slippery slope” you hear people warning against in discussions about public shaming.
What happened to McCammond is a salutary tale for anyone active on social media, especially young people starting out in the working world or those with skeletons lurking in their virtual closets.
Dublin-based American entrepreneur Gina London works with companies all over the world as a leadership communication strategist. “Your CV shows your qualifications but your social media shows your character... if you post it, it’s public. How we communicate shows our values and who we are,” she says. “It’s perfectly within the right of any organisation to dig as deep as you have posts.”
The companies London works with routinely trawl employees social media accounts both before and after hiring. Her advice is to remember that there is no “compartmentalising” your social media and your working life. If you have “dirty laundry” on platforms such as Twitter, Facebook or Instagram, she counsels that you should “take care of it”. “Don’t put out your dirty laundry and then leave it to air on social media for years and years.”
McCammond’s tweets were only deleted and apologised for in 2019. She waited too long, in London’s view, and her teenage posts were even more damning considering the magazine is a publication aimed at teenagers.
“If you make a mistake, if you’ve said something you know in your gut is wrong, get rid of it as soon as you realise. And go further. Go ahead and write on social media that you made a mistake.”
Her point about companies using social media to make judgment calls about potential or current employees is backed up by a 2018 survey from global recruitment organisation Career Builder. It showed that 70 per cent of employers use social networking sites to research job candidates during the hiring process and more than half have found content on social media that caused them not to hire someone. Around a third of employers have reprimanded or fired an employee based on content online.
It’s a new and growing area, with legal and GDPR implications that must be carefully navigated. Helen Thomas, head of candidate care with executive recruitment company Odgers Berndtson, says social media trawls are done “at the offer stage with the consent of the potential employee … the candidate is told, look, in the next 48 to 72 hours we will be doing a social media audit.”
Without such a thorough audit, a company might offer a job only to have to deal with the PR disaster of rescinding the offer and starting the recruitment process all over again. Recently, in a State appointment, Aaron Forde was appointed as Shannon Group chairman by Minister for Transport Eamon Ryan. But by that evening, the appointment was cancelled after it emerged Forde had previously tweeted disparaging comments about members of the Government and had used ethnic slurs about members of the Traveller community.
On the flipside, Thomas says, your online reputation “isn’t just about negatives. It allows you to control the narrative and make employers want to know more.” A complete lack of a social media presence can also, she explains, be in itself a negative from an employer’s point of view.
'Over time our thoughts change, and culture changes, and we grow and learn. Social media doesn’t always allow for that'
Dublin writer Róisín Kiberd’s new book The Disconnect, a personal journey through the internet, explores “what we have gained, what we have lost and what we have willingly given away in exchange for this connected life”.
Kiberd sees the Teen Vogue incident as “an inevitable teething problem” of learning to live with social media. “We’ve been seduced into giving so much of our lives away over the years, and conditioned to believe it’s right to share our thoughts,” she says.
“But over time our thoughts change, and culture changes, and we grow and learn. Social media doesn’t always allow for that; the ‘personal branding’ we’ve all been encouraged to practise has a cut-throat underside.”
“It’s acceptable to expect a level of sensitivity and self-awareness from big media companies like Condé Nast, and to criticise them when they fail to meet those standards. That’s very different to scapegoating, though; it’s all too easy to pin systemic problems on an individual, and act like the problem is resolved when they leave.”
“However many times we have this debate, I doubt that these issues are going to go away any time soon,” she adds. “It’ll be interesting to see if the platforms respond to demand and make it easier to mass-delete or hide old posts, or even start over under the same name. It might actually help them retain users in the long run, while giving people more control over their online lives.”
And even with this kind of hiding or mass deletion – there are already companies you can pay to discretely “cleanse” your digital exhaust – nobody is safe from the screengrab that never dies, which can resurface months, years or even decades after an offending social media post.
Cyberpsychologist Dr Ciarán Mc Mahon , author of The Psychology of Social Media, hopes future generations will be more forgiving in these cases. “They will have to be,” he says. “People should be forgiven for youthful indiscretions. Often those who have radical or unpleasant political opinions in their youth move on from them. But the current climate forces people to remain as the person they were a long time ago … we have to find a method to allow people to grow as individuals.
“Our generation, the generation that created the internet as it currently is, will have a lot of questions to answer when our children come of age … and I think the younger generation will create something quite different, and hopefully better and more humane than the system we have.”
It’s interesting that Mc Mahon mentions forgiveness, a virtue that does appear to be in even shorter supply since Jon Ronson’s book came out six years ago.
Writing in the Atlantic, Graeme Wood touched on this too: “A world in which McCammond apologises for old tweets is better than one in which she sees nothing wrong with them … in many religious traditions, expiation of guilt is an earthly process; you can confess your sins to a priest or wander Earth in sackcloth and ashes.
“For the sake of today’s Teen Vogue readers I hope that by the time they are McCammond’s age the current culture has developed its own process of expiation.”