The line between public and private used to be pretty thick. Ten-plus years ago, your public persona and what you did or said behind closed doors could be kept separated. That is definitely not the case now, when so much of our lives is conducted online. While it may seem that what you post on your locked-down Facebook page will never come back to haunt you, the fact is that the internet is forever, and you should never post anything you wouldn’t want the entire world to see—including private text messages.
The fact is, social media has ruined careers and lives, simply because of a lack of understanding of how permanent it is. Whereas in the past, unfortunate actions or words would be witnessed by few and relatively quickly forgotten, social media can make our worst gaffes into worldwide scandals almost instantly—and ones that never die. The perceived anonymity and privacy of the internet makes people feel safe posting photos, videos, or ideas that they would never do publicly. However, as women who posted unclothed photos in private Photobucket albums recently found out when it came out that they had been accessed and reposted to a Reddit group, privacy and anonymity don’t always work out the way they’re supposed to online.
While you would think that public figures would take extra care to protect their reputations, many have fallen prey to the temptation to over-share, and have paid the price with the loss of their careers. Here are five of the most infamous:
New York State Democratic Representative Anthony Weiner was considered to be a highly successful politician, having been the youngest person ever to win a New York City Councilman seat at the age of 27, and then going on to win and hold the seat of New York’s 9th congressional district for seven years running. Unfortunately, despite his excellent work with underprivileged, at-risk kids and public housing, his career ended in a matter of minutes when he sent a link to a sexually suggestive photo of himself to a woman on Twitter. Although he denied sending the photo, claiming that his Twitter account had been hacked, eventually it came out that he had been exchanging explicit photos and messages with the woman for over three years. He resigned from congress on June 21, 2011, less than a month after the picture that brought him down was posted online.
Republican congressman from New York, Chris Lee, fell victim to the same kind of impulse that brought Anthony Weiner down—the impulse to flex nakedly for women met online. According to reports, Lee responded to a Craigslist ad posted by a 34-year-old single woman looking for a man, sending her email that included photos of him shirtless and flexing. She broke off contact when she discovered that he had lied about his age and profession, but the photos had bigger consequences than just losing an internet flirtation. Lee resigned from Congress almost immediately after reports of the photos came out.
Mark Foley, a Republican congressman from Florida, made news in 2006 when it was discovered that he had been sending sexually suggestive instant messages and solicitous emails to teenaged boys who had previously served as congressional pages. Although the FBI investigated, Foley was never charged because of a lack of evidence and the expiration of the statute of limitations. Nevertheless, the scandal cost him his seat in congress. Foley resigned in September of 2006.
Brian J. Doyle
People aren’t always who they seem on the internet, which is something that former Deputy Press Secretary for the Department of Homeland Security, Brian J. Doyle, found out the hard way. Doyle used social media to seduce what he thought was a 14-year-old girl online. Unfortunately for Doyle, the underage girl he was soliciting was actually an undercover sheriff’s deputy. Doyle was arrested in April 2006, and sentenced to five years in prison with 10 years of probation. He is now a registered sex offender and his career is definitively over.
Although most social media scandals that have ruined public figures have occurred in political circles, other kinds of public figures have blown up their careers in a matter of minutes online as well. Although sex scandals tend not to affect the careers of Hollywood stars, recording artists, and sports stars the way they do politicians, homophobia or racism is a total career killer. Consider Kansas City Chiefs running back Larry Johnson, whose promising NFL career ended largely because of gay slurs posted in a Twitter argument with a fan. Though he went on to play for the Redskins, they didn’t keep him for long; most people agree that the Twitter gaffe had more to do with his release than poor play.