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How digital footprints are affecting people's futures


If a person walks on sand or snow and leaves footprints, they don't last long. That's not true for digital footprints, however. They encompass a person's online activities. 

Even if someone thinks twice about something they post and ultimately deletes it, the damage is already done. Fellow internet users can capture screenshots of posts that only remain visible for a matter of minutes, then rapidly spread them for all to see, thereby ruining future opportunities. 

Social media posts could put college opportunities at risk

Many college hopefuls spend years trying to get good grades, participate in extracurricular activities and achieve high scores on college entrance exams. 

Evidence shows, however, that social media activity could negate those efforts and hurt someone's online reputation. A 2018 survey found that 57% of college admissions professionals consider social media profiles fair game when making applicant decisions. It's slightly comforting, though, that only 25% admitted to taking that route. 

Marilyn Hesser, the executive director of admission at the University of Richmond, said that social media evaluations are not usually part of the process there. However, she noted the institution takes exception if the applicant provides social media links or a third-party discloses problematic information about a candidate. Hesser also confirmed that the University of Richmond turned applicants down on rare occasions due to social media content. 

In one recent incident, Ismail B. Ajjawi, a 17-year-old Harvard freshman from Palestine, got turned away by border patrol officers after landing in Boston. Authorities allegedly seized the student's phone and computer, then found posts from friends whose political views opposed the United States. 

Ajjawi responded that he played no role in the posts and did not like, comment on or share the content, but he still got turned away. He successfully arrived at Harvard 10 days later, but only after assistance from legal professionals and college representatives. 

Online material makes people have second thoughts about hiring decisions

As people tweak their resumes and agonize over the best ways to express themselves in cover letters, they should consider restricting access to their social media profiles, too, if possible. 

One poll revealed 57% of hiring professionals that look at social media content found material that caused them not to hire applicants. Also, the practice of such screening seems more widespread in the workforce than in the college admissions realm. The survey indicates that 70% of respondents already examine social media profiles for research purposes, and 7% intended to start. 

Offensive material published to such platforms need not be from recent months. Comedian Kevin Hart found that out the hard way when he lost his 2019 Academy Awards hosting gig. The culprit was a homophobic tweet posted in 2011. In another instance of a costly blunder, Australian rugby player Israel Folau lost a multiyear $4 million contract after a Twitter post saying several broad groups of people would go to hell. Folau eventually got a chance to play for another team, but some people in the rugby world opposed that news and viewed the player as a potential risk. 

It only takes seconds to ruin an online reputation

As discussed earlier, many people hurriedly take down controversial tweets, but it's too late. Cached pages and sites like the Internet Archive's Wayback Machine mean that deleting content does not prevent it from coming back to haunt someone.

Then, as a Texas English teacher discovered, trouble can crop up by sending tweets to someone rather than posting them as part of a public feed. That's because Twitter shows a person's main feed, as well as the replies made to fellow site users. Georgia Clark sent several tweets to President Trump, asking for his help in removing undocumented immigrants from the school where she taught. A student also said Clark stated prejudicial views in the classroom. 

An early ruling on the matter concluded the teacher should either get her job back or receive a year's pay, but coverage from November 2019 indicated the school might file an appeal. Even in outcomes that favor the person who made a mistake, that individual may spend months or years trying to regain public trust. Plus, the past could hinder the social media user's future efforts in the job market if they need to look for work. 

A digital footprint persists

As people become more dependent on the internet and frequently use it to give opinions or joke about things that some viewers find offensive, the likelihood of online activities ruining future opportunities rises. Thus, caution is the best approach to take when publishing content online. 

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