On the travails of Neera Tanden

We are once again being reminded that the past and the present are inexorably interlocked and that the present is only an extension of the past, such that the the present is shaped by the past with whatever is done in the past having immense implications and resonance for the present by the current struggle of  President Joe Biden’s nominee to lead the Office of Management and Budget, Neera Tanden, to get confirmed for the position by the Senate.  Tanden’s nomination had attracted massive blow back from many Republicans and Progressive Democrats because of her past strident and caustic attacks on Republicans and Progressives on the social media. Indeed, to even get President Biden to go ahead with and make public her nomination, she had to delete over 1000 tweets that she made against prominent individuals, using sometimes very negative language. She therefore, during her first hearing, had to apologize to the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee, for her past Twitter broadsides directed at Republicans and others over the years. Republican senators however were ready to grill Tanden about some of her attacks on GOP lawmakers,— particularly against senators who she now had to face for her confirmation.

And sure enough, Tanden responded in very contrite manner and words: “It’s been part of my role to be an impassioned advocate. I know there have been concerns about some of my past language and social media, and I regret that language and take responsibility for it. I appreciate people’s concerns about my tweets. I’ve regretted them. I deleted tweets because I regretted my tone, I deeply regret and apologize for my language and some of my past language.” With this contrite heart, it is to be expected that Tanden has learnt her lessons in a hard way and should stll be able to get the Senate confirmation that wouid enable her make history as the first woman of colour and the first woman of Asian extraction to head the Budget office.

Yet, there’s a sense in which Tanden’s current saga over tweets she made years back represents the stark reality that the internet never forgets. As a matter of fact, if there’s anything to be disregarded, it should not be the possibility of our actions on social media being traced in the future.  In any case, we’ve had a few stories of  Internet use with not so good endings. Remember Kelvin Hart,  the popular American comedian and actor? How more than ten years old offensive tweet made him lose out on  hosting the 2018 Oscars despite deleting the said tweet and apologising? There was also another popular Nigerian radio host, who shared the story of how an unrefined YouTube video she made in the past cost her a potential job when it was brought up during the interview.

Whilst Neera Tanden and Kelvin Hart amongst others have proven that even a pre-internet past can come back to haunt, the digitisation of our every thought has given our youthful misdemeanours a permanence we cannot avoid. Thanks to social media, something silly you thought or did at age 15 could easily appear for all to judge 10, 20, or 50 years later at the tap of a button. In fact even tiny scraps of personal information can have a huge impact, even years after they were shared or made public.

Today, one of the most important tools for job seekers is social media. In a bid to expand their search, graduates turn to postings from companies and set up notifications to instantly find career opportunities and openings. Social media profiles and postings also allow them to look closely into a potential employer. In like manner, several social media sites now enable companies and employers to conduct background checks on their applicants’ profiles. An applicant’s credentials and job interview results alone just don’t cut it anymore. Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn posts, for example, have become a revolutionary tool, changing the way companies view and ultimately choose their employees.

Similarly, there have been talks of employers demanding their employees’ social media account passwords. According to a research, 34% of employers say social media sites have helped them decide whether or not to shortlist their applicants for specific job positions. Simply put, social media posts have allowed them to filter candidates based on the content of their online profiles. Companies take applicants’ conduct on social media seriously; showing that behavior that is uncalled for can make or break their hiring potential. And Google’s recent move to integrate our information in its products has helped us realize that we can’t necessarily rely on privacy settings either. Nor can we just click delete once something’s on the Internet; it’s pretty hard to take it back, because people share it and modify it until it’s not really ours anymore. Everything you post online: comments or opinions, but also pictures and videos, will always be visible for everyone to see. The Internet never forgets. This truism has to be taken quite literally: via cached pages or projects such as the Internet archive, it doesn’t matter if you delete something (or think you have), once it’s been online, it has been saved somewhere for the future.

In the last analysis, self-regulation is perhaps the only viable tool to help us if we want to avoid the fate of the Tandens and Harts of this world. To be sure, the call here is not for us to cut out our digital tongues, or to run away in any totalistic form from social media as this would also entail or be tantamount to not engaging with our society and environment. Rather, self-regulation should be about our being responsible and careful in our undertakings and engagements on the social media. We should always remember and be conscious of the fact that whereas the internet is a very good servant and a great enabler at the same time, it can be a hostile witness. Against this background, knowing and managing our relationship with the internet well and with great care will grant us the needed exposure it offers without much future revenge and negative implications. In this regard, our behaviour and interactions online should not just be about the here and now as it would be important for us to almost always consider the legacies that we want to leave behind since the digital footprints we make would resonate far into the future. Especially in this digital age, where the internet remembers all, it woukd be quite in order for us to remember and be conscious that whatever we capture and record on the world wide web will outlive us and probably be discovered even by our multiple generations of descendants. The idea is to be conscious always of the enduring effect of our online activities and behaviour, such thst, before we make that racist, sexist, homophobic or just plain callous remark on Twitter, we would remember that it will not be forgotten and that it will always stand as witness and monument to us indefinitely into the future with the potential and capability of hurting us in terms of career, ambitions and relationships. Let us therefore keep our senses and always remember that we are writing and shaping our own future with our digital footprints now

 

  • Yakubu is with the Department of Mass Communication, Federal University, Oye-Ekiti, Nigeria.

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