In August 2015, Ala Buzreba, then the Liberal candidate for Calgary Nose Hill, was giving up her candidacy. Just 21 years old, Buzreba was trying to unseat Conservative Michelle Rempel. But that dream crumbled when a few less-than-savoury comments posted to her Twitter account during her high-school year surfaced—four years before she entered the political spotlight. “Just got my hair cut, I look like a flipping lesbian!!:’(” she wrote in June 2011. In another instance, she told someone on Twitter to “Go blow your brains out.” “I apologize without reservation for the comments I made a long time ago, as a teenager, but that is no excuse,” she publicly announced. She continued, asserting that the tweets “do not reflect my views, who I am as a person, or my deep respect for all communities in our country.” Despite the apology, she stepped down, the sting of a few sordid tweets leaving her deflated and unable to continue the race.
Welcome to the Generation of Too Much Information. We’ve all seen a child who can barely walk or use a spoon master an iPad. One consequence of this increasing ease with technology over the past decade is the presence of young adults who have only ever known a world in which personal information and images are circulated online— a world in which an online presence is deemed a necessity.
It’s easy to use social media platforms with reckless abandon to talk about relationships, work stresses, and our political views. In the last 10 years, social interaction has become even more publicly uncensored. Unconcerned and seemingly invincible, teens and young adults post without much thought. After all, what’s the worst that can happen? Who could possibly care? Poor judgment in what we post may very well lead to a digital legacy that’s less than admirable.
We are entering a new age of transparency with new rules about privacy and identity.
There are myriad other behaviours that are captured about how we drive (Tesla), what we buy (Amazon), who we communicate with (Google); we tacitly agree to give up privacy in exchange for convenience. Thomas Koulopoulos, author of The Gen Z Effect, says it’s not at all clear where this data may be stored, how it may be used, or who may ultimately have access to some derivative of it. “To those who say, ‘I don’t care because I have nothing to hide!’ I’d say think carefully before you give away a right you may never regain,” Koulopoulos says.
Offensive tweets and photos are bound to be part of our new political reality as Generation Z—those born in 1996 and onward—reaches adulthood. The effects of this hyper-connected and digital-first cohort therefore demand further scrutiny. We have yet to agree upon social, legal, and technical standards by which to navigate this new era of transparency.
Once seen as promising spaces for deliberation, Twitter’s hostile climate has provided a new arena for the enactment of power inequities by political parties. But Buzreba’s case is symptomatic of a larger problem on social media platforms. Is there really any room for apology online? Or is a remark made in 140 characters enough to typecast you as a foolish, inconsiderate imbecile?
In the wake of data protection and privacy laws, we can be fooled to think that what we say and do online can be fully erased. But our collective digital futures rests solely in our hands. We are unequivocally responsible for the online trail we leave behind.
In June 2017, a remarkable collision of free speech and toxic internet culture unfolded at Harvard University. The school rescinded the acceptance offers of at least 10 students after they reportedly shared offensive and obscene memes in a private Facebook group chat. Some of the memes shared in the private chat were sexually explicit, made light of sexual assault, and contained racist jokes aimed at specific ethnic groups. One thing is overwhelmingly clear: Social media platforms allow speech to persist, endure, and travel further.
“On one hand there definitely is the concern that everything we do is archived and things that you did before you knew better may come back to haunt you,” says Ramona Pringle, a professor in the faculty of communication and design at Ryerson University. But racist and sexist beliefs fostered in online forums that are spread on social media need to be acknowledged and addressed as a serious concern that cannot be cast away in the name of free speech. Pringle worries that it’s too easy to use the excuse that, “they’re just kids.”
“People who might want to engage thoughtfully feel like they can’t,” says Pringle. “The true value of online platforms is collaboration and cooperation, but we see less of it when there’s bullying, hostility, or toxicity of any kind.” It’s no secret that Twitter is notorious for its strong shaming culture. “There’s a difference between saying something damaging and saying something stupid,” she says.
We are mistaken to believe that most social media platforms—especially Twitter—were designed to be archives of the individual. Rather, their interfaces are designed to be a snapshot of a certain point in time in our lives, reflecting what we’re doing or saying, thinking, and sharing. Posting status updates is a sort of ritualized documentary practice that allows us to freely share what’s on our mind.
Pringle believes apologies don’t work on Twitter because our audience has already moved on. It’s a sentiment echoed by Greg Elmer, a media scholar also at Ryerson University and the Bell Media Research Chair. He says the way information is presented on Twitter is a relatively new format. Before the newsfeed, information was presented horizontally. If you watch a business news channel, for example, the bottom text always moves horizontally. With Twitter, Facebook and Instagram, information travels vertically and then “disappears.” Elmer calls this a “vertical ticker.” Vertical looped tickers highlight the fleeting nature of our networked and socially mediated communication, since they provide an intensely compressed time and space to have posts viewed by friends and followers. Whether we’re aware of it or not, he suggests there is a psychological effect to this vertical ticker. We are compelled to post something provocative enough that it will garner a reaction, ultimately revealing a more whole portrait of ourselves—but at what expense?
“The notion of privacy is completely meaningless,” says Elmer. In certain circumstances—increasingly on social media platforms—Elmer suggests that the privacy of users stands in direct opposition to the stated goals and logic of the technology in question. Companies like Facebook and Google are entirely predicated upon the act of going public. Elmer’s theory argues that uploading, sharing personal information, opinions, and habits is all part of “going public” in our social media age. Privacy is therefore only a hindrance to these processes. Let’s not forget that these online platforms profit from publicity and suffer from stringent privacy protocols—their goal is to learn as much as possible about users in order to aggregate and sell this targeted information to advertisers. While mass media has enjoyed a near monopoly on public attention, Elmer says today’s economy of attention is dictated by how we consume information through social media platforms.
When it comes to politics, though, the problem with sharing snippets of our lives on social media becomes twofold: Politicians can’t overshare, but their hesitation to share takes them out of the public eye when they need it most. In the case of Buzreba, the former Liberal candidate, there was a deep tension at the heart of party lines. Canada has an intensely risk-averse political climate. If a few tweets can falsely frame you as unfit to run for public office, this establishes a political culture that promotes bland people with little to no lived experiences to shape the direction of our country. Leaving no room for growth and forgiveness sends a clear message to young minds: In order to be in the public eye, you must be squeaky clean and continue to be squeaky clean from here to eternity.
Still, “I hope there will be more acceptance and forgiveness because the voting public will also have grown up posting online, so I hope they’ll be as fussy or sensitive to ‘embarrassing’ posts,” says Pringle. While she acknowledges that teens may have a proclivity for performative behaviour online, Pringle also points out that there’s a clear difference between a drunk selfie and a racial slur. In September 2017, YouTube megastar Felix Kjellberg, commonly known as PewDiePie, used the N-word during a live video stream. Games developers quickly condemned his behaviour—one even filed a copyright claim to order YouTube to remove some of Kjellberg’s videos. Despite the public outcry, many people came to Kjellberg’s defence, dismissing the event as a crime of gaming passion. In the political ring, we can only hope that constituents will be able to recognize the varying degrees of severity of online behaviour. As it’s becoming harder to separate our “real” selves from what we put online, what we do and how we express it affects these platforms just as much as they affect us. Harsh words, inebriated photos, and controversial opinions might be the status quo in cyberspace. But there would surely be less venom if people considered the words they write to each other online as having the same impact as those said face to face.
One thing’s for certain: We do not yet know all the consequences of growing up in a world where so much personal data has been circulated. In this culture of self-surveillance, privacy has been forfeited. But legal changes are attempting to claw some of it back. Laws surrounding the “right to be forgotten” illustrate the new challenges facing transatlantic lawmakers following the digital availability of personal data on the internet. The right famously came about by the Court of Justice of the European Union in its May 2014 landmark decision on Google Spain SL v. Agencia Española de Protección de Datos, when it authorized that an individual’s (in this case, a man named Mario Costeja González) personal information pertaining to past debts be removed from accessibility through a search engine. The ruling states that Google must delete “inadequate, irrelevant, or no longer relevant” data from its results when a member of the public requests it. González succeeded after spending five years fighting to have his home’s foreclosure news articles taken down from Google’s search engine. The ruling led to a record number of requests from Europeans to remove personal data—involving close to 700,000 URL addresses.
Other countries, such as the U.K., have also taken steps to protect its citizens online. In August, updates to a data protection bill gave Britons the right to force companies that dominate the internet, like Facebook and Google, to delete personal data, or information posted when users were children. While social media is all about making a mark, the right to be forgotten is about handing over a different kind of power. It is asserting ownership of our identity by refusing to pass it over to corporations. There is a freedom in being able to delete some of our digital past—or in growing up without one.
In Canada, there are no laws in existence on the right to be forgotten or erased. If someone discovers a website that displays their personal information without their consent, they must contact the Office of the Privacy Commissioner. Meanwhile, critics say the ability to remove personal info from the web is an attack on freedom of speech and freedom of information.
But Canadian lawmakers have already passed laws that aim to supplement preexisting legal matters on defamation, the breach of privacy, and to solve specific online problems. This includes the Protecting Canadians from Online Crime Act, which amended the Criminal Code to sanction the non-consensual publication of intimate images and harassing communication. In Nova Scotia, for example, the Cyber-safety Act allows for the prosecution of those who use electronic communication to cause harm or damage to the health, self-esteem or reputation of another person, to cause fear, intimidation, humiliation, or distress—in the wake of Rehtaeh Parsons’ untimely death.
Recognizing that we all make mistakes, especially when we’re young—and that a trivial photo or comment should not leave an indelible stain—is a characteristic of contemporary modern life. Online commentary can inform, improve, and shape people for the better, and it can alienate, manipulate, and shape people for the worse.
Can we encourage policies and technologies that are supportive of healthy discourse? Or should we be fostering a culture of moderation that will, in time, curtail online hostility and encourage forgiveness? These questions and more persist in academic circles.
There is no straightforward solution other than self-awareness. Drawing the appropriate line on the internet is tricky, but it must never be an excuse not to set parameters or to allow all manner of ongoing harassment, insults, and abuse. To abdicate moral responsibility in the face of bullies is to hand society over to the most vicious among us. We can be both understanding about the human propensity to outbursts, while at the same time insisting on norms requiring apology and a generally good behavioural track record over time by the organizations and the individuals representing them. Pushing young adults to withdraw from online activity partially or entirely has devastating consequences. At stake is their equality and participation in the increasingly significant public sphere that is the internet.