As the cornerstone of any democracy, freedom of speech empowers the general populace with the ability to freely express themselves in various forms; verbally or via electronic media in platforms including online. However, in today’s digital world any individual or organisation partaking in online activities leaves a permanent digital footprint, a trail which will be visible for generations to come. The pace of the changes that swept across Zimbabwe in the past month has demonstrated that going with the wind and having an irresistible urge to publish your thoughts and opinions online for the sake of re-tweets and “likes” can have a disastrous effect on your person. The internet is unforgiving.
A digital footprint is all of the information online about a person either posted by that person or others, intentionally or unintentionally. It is your online history, pertaining to all the stuff you leave behind as you use and surf the Internet. As the world moves increasingly online, most of our daily lives are recorded on some sort of electronic database. However what happens online is beyond our control!
Unlike footprints in the sand, which can be washed away by the wind or wave tides in the ocean or sea, digital footprints can be permanent. With the passing of every day, files, images and videos including pre-internet articles, are being uploaded; thus reincarnating historical footprints. Through your digital footprint; you are broadcasting what you look like, where you work, where you have been, who you know, your hobbies, and of course, your opinions on a variety of topics. This is accessible to anyone, including strangers!
In November this year, with the rapidly changing scenario in Zimbabwe, a lot of politicians, activists and “clikivists” (the internet politicians and analysts) found themselves flip-flopping on their analysis and commentary of the situation faster than the Karate Kid’s punches. They found themselves navigating from the murky waters of “the Crocodile is finished” to the “return of the Crocodile”. Whilst this has been the norm in the political world before the digital age, the meandering path was not captured and it was easier for turncoats to shift positions and deny occupation of their previous ones. A lot of analysts were caught out; and embarrassingly so.
Philip Chiyangwa’s recordings for example, should provide lessons for figures of public prominence on the damage that the digital world can wreak on a reputation. Whilst he frantically tried to disassociate himself with the old order, the digital evidence was embarrassingly overwhelming. The way he is now being torn to shreds in the media gives an indication of what we can expect to see more of, as more politicians and political commentators of the digital age come into the spotlight as they try to flip-flop and change positions. Prof Moyo’s fall from grace, for example, is well documented on Twitter, thanks to his Twitter-activism and publicly available digital publications.
Prominent leaders of the MDC Alliance where also caught-up in the digital footprint unforgiving nature. After openly praising Operation Restore Legacy and the installation of President Mnangagwa on their Twitter and Facebook accounts; a number of them attempted to make a U-turn (apparently after failing to make it into government as they had hoped), but their digital activity was thrown back onto their faces, exposing them as hypocrites. It is only a matter of time before our future leaders or even presidents find their teenage antics on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and YouTube back-spinning to haunt them.
Whilst every individual could be the victim of his or her own digital footprint, it is public figures such as politicians who are most at risk. For such groups, even seemingly harmless information can be misinterpreted, spun and used by hostile third parties to expose private activity, attack reputations, and even do serious harm. However, counterintuitively, digital space remains overlooked by naïve public figures who venture into it without carrying out risk assessments. This was so prominent before, during and after the Zimbabwean events, where for example, the social media acts of the former President’s sons ignited and added heaps of fuel to the resentment towards the former first family. The bragging on social media by one Chivayo also came back to haunt him.
Known elements of a digital profile exist in the open for any unauthorised party to view indiscriminately. News stories, profile pieces and social media accounts offer a wealth of data that may reveal an individual’s interests, whereabouts and extended social circle. The social media accounts unwittingly divulge sensitive information, even where the target individuals themselves refrain from social media activity. Family members are often the prime information targets of hostile third parties. It does not take much effort to assemble a family tree and then to track down and monitor the circle’s digital activities. Investigative journalists are also increasingly turning to new tech-powered tools to source family-related stories.
As well as drawing negative press attention, some posts expose information which can pose physical risks too and can be used to track down the individuals themselves; such as license plate numbers and hotel locations.
Deviating from Zimbabwe, in the UK, the case of the burglary at the house of the millionaire footballer, John Terry in March this year is a typical example of how social postings can expose information which can be harmful. Terry’s mansion was targeted after the player posted pictures from the slopes of the French Alps with his wife, telling his 3.4 million Instagram followers that he was having a ‘great few days away skiing with the family’. A gang of four used the posted information to steal more than £400,000 worth of designer goods from the mansion of the former England captain whilst he was away!
It is difficult to permanently erase anything from the internet, and therefore it is critical to be aware of what is being circulated about an individual, their business or family. In this digital age these articles can become prominent features of an individual’s first page of internet search results; becoming a person’s virtual “business card”. Such content can have an especially enduring effect, appearing on the digital profiles of spouses, siblings and children due to a shared family name, creating an online reputation crisis.
Some websites build a list of the various devices one has used to visit them. While this can often be applicable as a means of helping to secure your account, it is important to understand the information being collected about your habits. Make no mistake about it – the web is listening every time you use it! It’s important that you understand what you’re leaving behind when you visit any website.
Social networking opens the door to the possibility of being cybervetted when applying for a job. Cybervetting or online vetting is the practice of using information found on the Internet to determine whether a person is a viable candidate for employment. It is just another tool in the box to gather information about the person’s behaviour to verify whether the applicant’s behaviour online is the same as in real life.
With one google search of your name prospective clients, employers, and co-workers can get a snapshot of your history. Most employers are using this snapshot to screen their applicants and eliminate candidates for consideration based on what they find. We should expect cybervetting to be used more and more by organisations, first to avoid surprises, and more as a digital background and fact checking tool. It is therefore critical now, more-so than ever, to be aware that what you say or do online is permanent. It can be a great opportunity for you to build your brand or conversely prove to be the easiest method of self-destruction.
There is also a flip side to this coin that suggests if you decide to go off the radar and remove your online trail you will cease to exist in a world where individuals are increasingly judged on their number of followers, online engagement or influence. Even employers already routinely check a candidate’s online profiles to see if they are a suitable fit for their organization and some are even hired as a result of their high Twitter following. The days of being digitally invisible are over, and anecdotally the lack of an online presence is starting to be viewed with suspicion in some circles. As the world increasingly turns online for information, digital silence can be obstructive in conducting effective due diligence or establishing a reputation.
Every day we contribute to a growing portrait of who we are online; a portrait that is probably more public than most of us assume. So no matter what you do online it is important that you know what kind of trail you are leaving, being aware of what the possible effects can be. Lessons should be drawn from the much-changed face of Zimbabwe and the speed of change, which saw a number of individuals scampering, trying to re-align themselves in vain, as the digital evidence was unforgiving.
Your digital footprint paints a picture of who you are. Before posting online, ask yourself whether the content portrays how you really want to be perceived. On the other hand creating a delusional online version of yourself is possibly the worst thing you can do; trying to be someone else is a waste of the person you are.
Social media and the internet are enablers that when used correctly can offer each and every one of us a wealth of opportunities with no side effects as long as we act responsibly. However, the internet is unforgiving, before texting, tweeting or sharing, consider how you would feel if the material went viral. Is your human need for approval for eliciting re-tweets and likes driving you to share questionable material? You should have zero expectation of privacy in cyberspace.
Thanks to screen capture; even a deleted post can still be retrieved and shared. Therefore, before you click ‘post’ on socio-economic and political topics think about your digital legacy! Unlike the Zimbabwean story, you cannot launch an “Operation Restore Legacy” in the digital world.