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Aggregated extortion, digital footprints’ dark side & second chances

This is the chilling side of the digital footprint (something that everybody has) – chilling because the takeaway seems to be that nobody can make a mistake anymore. Web sites with names like BustedMugshots and JustMugshots claim they’re doing society a favor by publishing photos that document arrests (not convictions) en masse. And when prospective employers or even people looking for a date or relationship don’t apply enough critical thinking to know that arrests are sometimes mistakes too, people – some of whom really are innocent or deserving of second chances – are harmed. Using the term “monetized humiliation,” New York Times reporter David Segal tells some depressing stories of people who were never convicted but couldn’t afford to get the sites to take down their mug shots. It’s much worse than having to pay credit bureaus to correct a borrower’s or creditor’s mistake because who knows how many of these mugshot sites there are? This is not a service. This is aggregated extortion.

So it’s important for everybody typing other people’s names into search boxes to know that, as Segal writes, “mug shots are merely artifacts of an arrest, not proof of a conviction, and many people whose images are now on display were never found guilty, or the charges against them were dropped.”

It’s even more important for everybody to understand how hard it can be to start over – or just to grow up – not just in an increasingly transparent world but also one where our pasts can pop up in search results as fast as the evidence of who we are now.

The ethical part of media literacy

Media literacy – letting people change, applying healthy skepticism to Web searches, and acknowledging that there’s so much more to a person than the top search results – has never been more important. More forgiveness would help too. In fact, I’m not sure if this is new (to go with new media), but media literacy seems increasingly to have an ethical component.

“It might be helpful for us to explore new ways of living in a world that is slow to forgive,” legal scholar Jeffrey Rosen put it so eloquently three years ago in the New York Times Magazine, as I’ve mentioned twice before (see related links below). Well, people may be no less willing to forgive, but the Internet – if not quite the world – offers lots of opportunities to do so. Rosen wrote about an ancient practice that may be even more relevant now:

“In the villages described in the Babylonian Talmud … any kind of gossip or tale-bearing about other people – oral or written, true or false, friendly or mean – was considered a terrible sin because small communities have long memories and every word spoken about other people was thought to ascend to the heavenly cloud. (The digital cloud has made this metaphor literal.)… Although the Talmudic sages believed that God reads our thoughts and records them in the book of life, they also believed that God erases the book for those who atone for their sins by asking forgiveness of those they have wronged. In the Talmud, people have an obligation not to remind others of their past misdeeds, on the assumption they may have atoned and grown spiritually from their mistakes.”

“On the assumption that they may have atoned”: the original innocent-until-proven-guilty? We have a long way to go in articulating and practicing the ethics this age requires. It might be ethical to search a mugshots “service” to protect one’s company, but it might also be ethical to apply critical thinking to the digitally obvious and talk with the person in the search results. As I wrote three years ago, this is a messy, unnerving transition time we’re in that requires a little more vigilance and a lot more tolerance. And now I’m thinking: a lot more skepticism toward sites that claim to serve the public while exploiting its fears.

How to move on in a fishbowl?

So how do we move on, get a second chance, in a fishbowl? Well, the experts in “personal brand management” or “online reputation” say we have to be proactive about putting out positive information about ourselves – in a sincere way, not manufacturing anything, because it’s ethical and because people can tell the difference between spin and authenticity (the upside of digital transparency).

But it’ll get easier for all of us as more and more people practice that ancient universal ethic of reciprocity which Christians call the Golden Rule and which would suggest to everybody:

Handle search results about others as thoughtfully (or skeptically) as you’d want them to handle search results about you!

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  1. Ah, the double-edged sword of the digital footprint! Not only do we have to “manage” what digital world says about us based upon our online activities, we also need to know how to critically evaluate what the digital world says about others. Yet another example of why teaching these literacies to kids is so essential.

    By the way, there’s a terrific lesson for kids that helps them learn these particular skills, I borrowed it from Common Sense Media a few years ago. The sixth graders I worked with thought they were hiring a candidate for a P.R. position at their school based upon a review of each candidate’s digital footprint. Just when the kids were congratulating themselves for making such a wise personnel decision the lesson throws in a twist that demonstrates how what you find out about others online cannot always be trusted. We videotaped it here; the kids reactions are precious!

    October 12, 2013

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