The Internet Never Forgets

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There was a time when, if you made a bad choice in life, you could just change your name and move to Texas. There, where nobody knew you, you could shake off the past and make a fresh start.

These days, youthful indiscretions, careless mistakes, flippant remarks made in private, or old transgressions long acknowledged can haunt you indefinitely thanks to the all-seeing power of the Internet.

Unflattering stories introduce you to a world of strangers who don't know anything else about you. The stories themselves may be highly distorted or even completely false. Yet someone looking online for information to help them decide whether or not—say, to hire you—gets a first impression that defines who you are, accurately or not.

Instant condemnation

Teachers and educational institutions are well aware of the online bullying that has become part of the Internet experience. Another form of the same phenomenon is the instant judgment and condemnation handed out by anonymous masses in the blogosphere to anyone whose perceived wrongdoing catches their attention. Anyone dedicated to the free and open exchange of ideas has an interest in seeing the Internet used for good rather than an unblinking recorder of our biggest regrets.

To that end, we all have a right and a responsibility to support the Internet as a means of open communication that champions freedom of speech, thought, and expression in order that bad ideas can be considered and improved (or discarded), and good ideas can be defended and shared.

But there's more. It also falls upon us, collectively, to ensure that no one will ever again face undue tribulations such as those that impacted the lives of a promising young lacrosse player from North Carolina and a distinguished Nobel laureate from Hertfordshire.

Failure to verify

In the spring of 2006, three players on the Duke University lacrosse team were accused of raping a dancer at an off campus party. Thirteen months later the three were publicly exonerated, who called them targets of “a tragic rush to accuse and a failure to verify serious allegations.” Their accuser was later sentenced to eighteen years in prison for killing her boyfriend with a kitchen knife. The local district attorney who spearheaded the prosecution against them was fired and disbarred for withholding crucial DNA evidence. The school paid millions in compensation to each of the accused.

As the drama unfolded, countless critics used the Internet to condemn the three players and their teammates as irresponsible children of privilege, rapists, and (according to Duke English professor Houston A. Baker, Jr.,) “a scummy bunch of white males.” Eventually the three graduated from college, put their lives back together, and presumably enjoyed the fruits of their multi-million dollar settlements.

Inside Joke

Another player, however, saw his story unfold quite differently. He was never charged with a crime, never a suspect in the alleged rape, and never compensated by the authorities, yet nineteen-year-old Ryan McFadyen saw his reputation and his future destroyed by the Internet gossip surrounding the accusations. Ryan had attended the now infamous party for a while then returned to his dorm. Before turning in, he sent an email to some teammates saying he planned to invite strippers to his room and then kill them. It was an inside joke with some of the guys, a reference to a favorite novel, American Psycho.

Two weeks later, the email appeared anonymously on a CrimeStoppers website. As a result, police obtained a search warrant on suspicion of conspiracy to commit murder and ransacked McFadyen's dorm room. Once the warrant was unsealed, the email, absent any context or explanation, went viral. The local newspaper posted it on its website. From there it soon made its way to Duke University president Richard Brodhead who said he “found it repulsive.”

What President Brodhead failed to mention and may not have known was that American Psycho, the inspiration for the email, was required reading in some Duke literature classes. Ryan's message was the kind of irreverent, freewheeling locker room talk young men exchange everywhere every day. “Nobody ever gave me any opportunity to explain myself,” he said later. By the end of the day, the email was on TV news and had been reposted numberless times online. He was branded as the unbalanced psycho who wanted to kill strippers.

An End to His Chances

Ryan graduated from Duke in 2008, earning his Master's degree two years later. But the email he had dashed off late one night as a joke awaited him at every turn. It was on the Internet to stay. Ryan had hoped to land a job with a Wall Street firm yet as he looked for work, a Google search of his name would call up the offending message. He was in the running for a position at a venture capital firm, but the email popped up and put an end to his chances.

He changed his first name. “I figured if I could get in front of people they would look at a resume and say, ‘He's good enough; bring him in,'” he explained. “I can speak to them and they'll see that I'm not what the Internet makes me out to be…. I'm not…a monster.” Two years after getting his Master's, Ryan landed a job with a real estate developer. Recalling the email that redirected his life, he says, “I happened to make a dark joke referencing a movie about a serial killer who kills strippers … and that tied in perfectly to the storyline of the mostly white team raping a poor black girl from Durham.”

As Vanity Fair concluded in a feature about Ryan's experience, “It is a cautionary tale about one of the still-evolving dangers of our new, all-encompassing digital era: how the dispatching of a single, flippant email to a select group of friends after a night of partying can change your life forever.”

A Knight in Peril

The Internet respects no boundaries of age, geography, or accomplishment. Dr. Tim Hunt won the Nobel prize for physiology in 2001. He was granted a knighthood. He was an honorary researcher at University College London, and a member of the European Research Council and the Royal Academy. In June 2015, speaking at a meeting about women in science during the world conference of science journalists in Seoul, the 72-year-old married scientist told his audience:

“It's strange that such a chauvinist monster like me has been asked to speak to women scientists. Let me tell you about my trouble with girls. Three things happen when they are in the lab: you fall in love with them, they fall in love with you, and when you criticize them they cry. Perhaps we should make separate labs for boys and girls? Now, seriously, I'm impressed by the economic development of Korea. And women scientists played, without doubt, an important role in it. Science needs women, and you should do science, despite all the obstacles, and despite monsters like me.”

A recording of the remarks indicates these wry, self-critical statements were received with “appreciative laughter.” Sir Tim later said that he made them “in a totally jocular, ironic way.” Yet within hours he was being described through what The Guardian called “the innate cruelty of social media, and in particular the savage power of Twitter,” as “a clueless sexist jerk,” and “a misogynist dude scientist.” His most outspoken and influential critic was Connie St. Louis, whose claimed academic accomplishments and credentials were later deemed “demonstrably false” by the British press.

“I am finished”

By the time Sir Tim returned home from Korea, University College London had already called demanding his resignation. That triggered a decision from the European Research Council that he step down from its science research committee, which he had helped set up. Reporters found his wife's ex-husband and prodded her to respond to the “juicy” story being written about her as a result.

Though women scientists, colleagues and former students came to Hunt's defense, the damage was done. “I am finished,” he observed. “I had hoped to do a lot more to help promote science…but I cannot see how that can happen. I have become toxic. I have been hung out to dry by academic institutes who have not even bothered to ask me for my side of affairs.”

Understanding the Context

Ryan McFadyen and Sir Tim Hunt are on opposite ends of the career spectrum and in many ways could scarcely be more different. But each was felled by offhand comments made to a select audience that were then taken out of context, aggressively misinterpreted, and posted online to fester there indefinitely. The two never had a chance to explain themselves.

Understanding the context, most rational readers who were honest with themselves would admit that no explanation was even necessary. We all occasionally say crazy things in the moment that we can't explain later. The academic institutions involved had benefited from their respective areas of talent—at lacrosse and at cell division research, respectively—yet abandoned them out of fear of bad publicity and legal liability without learning the facts (though McFadyen was reinstated after his teammates were cleared).

The task of determining whether a story is honest and legitimate has been passed from the media to the reader in the Internet age.

A wild-eyed blogger living in his mother's basement now has the same access to the marketplace of ideas as does The New York Times. In the past, news came largely from familiar sources with reputations to uphold and from reporters, writers, and editors of integrity who knew what a story meant and why it mattered. The anonymous and unregulated nature of the Internet puts inmates in charge of the asylum. Responsibility for interpreting the news honestly and ethically falls more to the consumers of information than ever before.

Educators have everything to gain from an information network that literally brings a world of knowledge to the doorstep of every student. But like fire, the Internet is a powerful force that can be employed for good or for ill. When we use it, we have an obligation to make sure that the innocent don't get burned.

Other sources:
1) McKie, Robin, “Tim Hunt: ‘I've been hung out to dry'… The Guardian, June 13, 2015

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