How Online Affects Offline: The Shame of Weinergate

June 28, 2011
By Sabre Sarnataro in Reputation Management

Ah, the notion that the Internet isn’t real life. It’s so cute, so innocent, so absurd! What makes us believe this? Is it denial or ignorance? It doesn’t matter.

Either way, it’s dangerous.

I didn’t really want to talk about Weinergate. It’s not only gross, but it pains me to think about how someone in public office can be so blind to the scope of social media and the Internet. But, looking at my own social media feeds I realized that former U.S. Representative Weiner is not alone. Many of us are blind. Too many of us, and as we’ve learned, being too, um, forthcoming online can often cost your job if you’re not careful.

Avoiding Mistakes

Weinergate started when Rep. Weiner decided to use Facebook and Twitter to solicit online relationships with women concealed from the knowledge of his wife. This is a stellar plan to begin with, but to top it all off, Weiner sent explicit texts and pictures to his online ladyfriends using a government-funded cell phone. Doh.

And then the unthinkable happened: he accidentally tweeted. I know, you’re shocked, right? That never happens. Meaning to send a picture of his junk to an online mistress via Direct Message on Twitter, he accidentally tweeted it to his public timeline. Although promptly deleted, it was still something that quite a few people noticed, and of course saved.

What can you learn from his congressional Weinergate?

Lesson #1: The Internet is Forever

To combat a potential online reputation management issue, we all must accept that the Internet is no longer a “second life”. People act like it’s is a shield, making them brazen and unusually open. But in reality, what you do on the Internet is more likely to stick with you in the future for a lot longer than it would in “real life.” Why? Because the Internet is real life…only under a magnifying glass.

Imagine what Anthony Weiner’s Google search results will look like in the next few years. Unless he’s smart enough to hire an online reputation management company, they will still be riddled with articles about this unfortunate incident. Then compare this outcome to that of Bill Clinton’s Lewinsky scandal, which happened before the rise of social media.

It makes me wonder, would Clinton have been acquitted of impeachment if all of his business had been online?

Weinergate Scandal

How to Prevent Mistakes

  1. Only publish private messages from private accounts.
    This was Weiner’s first and most crucial mistake in avoiding this reputation nightmare. Had he had the foresight to keep public and private social media accounts, he could have avoided the entire thing. If you’re going to commit adultery (which we don’t condone, but for argument’s sake), never do it from a public account that could potentially hurt your business’ reputation or your own.
  2. Re-read all tweets or status messages posted on public accounts twice before sending them.
    We’ve all seen far too many people manning company accounts who attempt to be clever by posting some politically incorrect joke to gain attention and create conversation. That’s an OK tactic, but only if you’re willing to stick by it. If you’re doing something controversial you might want to look twice at what you’re posting before you do it because backing down is not an option. It makes people angry.
  3. Don’t participate in shady behavior that would embarrass your mother.
    Alright, I’m under no delusion that this post will stop any shady behavior, but please think about the traces you’re making when you’re doing whatever it is that you must do online. Not sure what traces you’re leaving? Keep reading.

Pointing the Finger

After people noticed they saw something they shouldn’t have on Weiner’s Twitter account, it spread like wildfire. Rep. Weiner tried to deny he had anything to do with the picture at all. He even went on to say that someone hacked into his account and posted a random picture of a penis to simply make fun of his name.

Upon further investigation it was found that the tweet was sent from a TweetDeck account that was consistent to most of the other tweets on Weiner’s account. While this didn’t prove anything, it put increased pressure on Rep. Weiner to come clean. And his story started falling apart…

Lesson #2: The Internet Leaves Traces

Computers are far more complex than most people realize, capable of tracing details down to every character you type. It’s no wonder that online reputation consultants are such a needed and growing division of PR. But what traces are you leaving?

  1. Your IP address is logged.
    Keep in mind that it’s very easy for someone to look up the IP address of the computer from which you’re sending information. While most preliminary IP lookup Web sites won’t give people details, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist. If necessary, authorities have the capability of looking at this information.
  2. If you give a mouse a cookie…
    Ah, cookies. The delicious advertising evil that flaunts things we want to buy in front of us while we’re trying to work. I hope that isn’t just me. The use of these is so extreme with third party cookies tracking your movements from site to site. But, they’re hidden too, so there are traces most people don’t even think about. Let’s just say I wouldn’t buy anything embarrassing or illegal at work.
  3. Deleting doesn’t work.
    This goes beyond the fact that anyone can screen-shot anything you do on a public social media site or even blog for that matter. I’ve seen many deleted tweets resurface via this method. You can delete a tweet or blog post/comment from your account, but once it goes public someone will always have a copy. And if you’re using Facebook, privacy be damned, they keep records of all account activity, even what has been deleted. They own that information and will use it as they see fit.

Lying to Cover Your A**

As speculation that Rep. Weiner was lying about his illicit behavior increased, women involved in his online rendezvouses started coming out of the woodworks.

What did he do? He emailed his long-term online girlfriend, porn star Ginger Lee and asked her to lie for him and tell the press that they don’t know one another. He then combined it with his arrogance instructing her on PR tactics and telling her to use “y’all” to sound more innocent. He sure knows how to woo a woman.

Lesson #3: The Truth Prevails

Knee deep in lies and with the media hungry for fuel to feed the flame, copies of e-mails and Facebook conversations surfaced (probably for a nice chunk of change) between Rep. Weiner and his many online pursuits.

Take this lesson back to when you were a kid and your mom told you that the truth always comes out. Especially when all of the cheating, lying and coercing is taking place online and your emails are staring you in the face word for word. It’s much harder to have a he said- she said public debate this way.

  1. Be accountable.
  2. Be polite.
  3. Don’t write anything you’d be embarrassed for the public to see.

The People Will Rally

Due to the cover-ups and busted lies, more investigations were prompted about Rep. Weiner’s activities. One such investigation was his potential online solicitation and involvement with a 17-year-old girl. *sigh*

Fellow politicians began rallying for his resignation, and while the President wasn’t one, Obama did offer his opinion that if it were him, he would resign. Game over. Once your colleagues and the general public rally against you it’s a lost cause.

Three days after Obama’s interview, Anthony Weiner resigned from Congress and issued a public apology.

Lesson #4: Some Things You Can’t Combat

Escalations were what really made the situation what it was, a bloodbath. If you remember lesson #3 that truth prevails, the more information that comes to light, more attention will be thrown at the situation you’re trying to bury. It’s best to come clean about something completely on your own terms so that the situation doesn’t get worse.

If it gets so big that the President, mainstream media and Internet rally against you, it’s an issue even professional ORM experts or crisis communication agencies may not want to touch. And then you’re really in trouble.

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