Like many people without children, I think I’d make a good parent and as such will rescue my child’s future through far-reaching proclamations. For example, I’d ban them from social media.
“But dad!” they would protest. “Why are you so mean?”
“It’s for your own good,” I’d try to explain. “In 10 years, I don’t want you to lose a job because of what you posted today.”
Scratch that. I wouldn’t want them to lose access to something as mundane as a tourist visa. Since June, if applying for most US visas, you are obligated to hand over any social media handles used in the past five years, as well as e-mail addresses and phone numbers. The obligation is due to the Trump administration’s extreme vetting measures, but the practice was already voluntary in the Obama era.
Another tip for my fictional child: in bureaucracy, nothing is voluntary; omissions lead to suspicions.
But what if it’s a mistake and my kid’s lack of social media makes them look like an oddball? Bureaucracy doesn’t like iconoclasts. If little James Jr decides to apply for a job in 2040 but has no social media accounts will they be rejected outright? Will social media be like a credit record — you kind of need one if you want to move forward?
Some argue the solution is for these practices to be ethical. But ethics are odd, especially when you want to enforce them at a nuanced level such as social media data. We can all agree to some universal standards, but a lot of subjectivity arises when you narrow things to a cultural or social context. As the old saying goes: “When in Rome…”
A moving target
If ethics are relative, absolute enforcement isn’t possible. Selective enforcement will probably not work at all, because social media is a moving target. It will be so difficult to prove bias through social media, the kind of subjective micro-decisions that someone makes when vetting a person.
At the same time, social media screening is very powerful. If I had to make a choice for an employee, I’d be foolish not to check their social media profiles and, for example, see if they like to booze it up. The question is whether I have an issue with that and if the candidate with fewer beers in their photos reflect my opinion of people who drink.
It’s a completely arbitrary decision. As far as I’m aware, someone who throws back a few isn’t necessarily a bad worker. In some work cultures, NOT being able to drink counts against you. But it would still be a little irresponsible of my hiring duties to not at least check. Maybe it’s not ethical, but it sure is practical. Remember that word.
Much of this is covered by expensive background checks, of which social media screening looks like a cheaper alternative. Experts warn that it isn’t the same thing, that there are ethical and legal consequences to using someone’s personal information for vetting. But let’s be honest: it’s happening and it’s not likely to stop. In fact, it’s now part of your US visa application and will very likely become a fixture with other countries as well.
We keep using ethics as some sort of absolute, some sort of “three laws” that will naturally keep doom away. Technology will behave if we are ethical about it. But ethics are subjective, with very few absolutes. We universally agree that you can’t just kill another person. But we have a harder time agreeing when your future boss can look at your social media history.
What if it wasn’t social media? What if they want your browser history or the logs from your Internet service provider? We already have laws preventing that, requiring courts to approve search warrants. Your browser history, at least in liberal democracies, is your private business.
But once you publish something on social media the dynamic shifts. Even private social media accounts are considered by some to be fair game and not protected by the same ethics that stop them from searching your browser history. There is no clear line here, but I can guarantee you this: it will be decided by the winners, namely those who have the most to gain from it.
The Gordian Knot famously predicted that whoever can untangle it would rule Asia. Many tried and failed. Then along came Alexander the Great and cut the knot with his sword. Alexander cheated. What he did wasn’t ethical. But he went on to (briefly) rule much of Asia and the modern world emerged from his collapsed empire. If pragmatism and ethics aren’t aligned, the practical approach will win.
Dexter and doughnuts
Social media information — particularly from private accounts — should not be accessible to third parties without a court order. There is no leeway here, because the entire premise is entirely open to abuse and has no realistic prospect of measured control. Otherwise, there is only one alternative: to lie on social media, in the way people tell us not to.
Honestly, I’d ban my kids from social media or at least train them to curate it, to create an active lie. Social media isn’t about the truth, but what other people want to see. Imagine you’re a sociopath and you have to make people think you’re swell, like Dexter and his box of doughnuts.
Terrifying? Oh yes. But so is the idea that if I want to apply for a visa I need to provide social media records. I have no idea what’s in there, nor do I know what context it might be looked at. I’m certain I never vomited out racist or sexist statements. But maybe I once wrote about how fat Americans are. What if a fat American wants to vet me? What if they read this column?
- James Francis is a freelance writer