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Should There Be a Statute of Limitations on Offensive Social Media Posts?

The internet remembers everything. But maybe it shouldn’t.

Ala Buzreba campaign photo

It was August 18 of last year. Ala Buzreba still remembers that date, because it was the day they found the tweets. The 21-year-old Canadian, then a candidate for the Liberal Party in Calgary, woke up to a distressing phone call from her campaign coordinator, who told her that the campaign had found a number of offensive social media posts Buzreba had made as a teenager.

“She sent me screenshots of the tweets and I was like, ‘Oh my God,’” Buzreba says. In one, Buzreba tells a pro-Israeli Twitter user that he or she should have been aborted with a “coat-hanger.” In another, she complains about a haircut she received because it made her look like a “lesbian.” Buzreba didn’t even remember posting them. They were tweets from an old version of herself, of a young teen on the internet whose political and social sensibilities were raw and uninformed. Her entire Twitter history should have been scrapped before her campaign began—but somehow, a few tweets got away.

“Don’t worry,” her coordinator told her. “We’re taking care of it.” Buzreba went to school and her job at an insurance company, as usual.

By noon, however, Buzreba’s tweets had become national news. Political blogs picked up the story, and then major news organizations. Soon, Buzreba’s campaign photo was being flashed on the CBC, Canada’s biggest TV network.

“There was a reporter digging around the office looking for me. They were like, ‘she’s not here.’ He wouldn’t go away,” Buzreba says. “People were even trying to get me fired from my job. They were tweeting at the company that I was working at, saying, ‘How could you have someone like this working for you?’ And then they would tweet at the university.”

Justin Trudeau, then the Liberal Party’s candidate for prime minister, gave her a call. He asked her how she was doing. Buzreba told him she was thinking about resigning. Trudeau said he’d support any decision she made. Before the end of the day, she announced her resignation. In a statement posted to Facebook, she wrote:

“I would like to reiterate that I apologize, without reservation, for posting comments that do not accurately reflect my views and who I am,” she wrote. “I have posted a lot of content on social media over the years, and like many teenagers, I did so without really taking the time to think through my words and weigh the implications. I am confident this decision is the right decision for myself and for the people of Calgary Nose Hill.”

Buzreba’s story is becoming a familiar one in the era that we occupy—one in which a generation of young adults are coming of age having fully documented all their youthful missteps and indiscretions online. YouTube, Twitter, Facebook, even Reddit and Tumblr, are virtual vessels for past representations of who we were. It often feels disorienting when Facebook’s “memories” feature turns up a post from three, or two, or even one year ago. It’s a struggle to remember the exact context for a dumb photo or meme you posted or why the friends commenting on it are no longer people you keep in touch with. People change. They grow. They acquire life experiences and knowledge that will help them become either better people or worse ones. But the internet preserves images of our former selves, keeping them fresh and new, as though they were made yesterday.

“Everything that you do on the digital platform, whether it’s online or mobile, anything you do is permanent,” says Karen North, the director of USC Annenberg’s Digital Social Media (DSM) program, and a clinical professor in the School of Communication. “If you think it’s temporary, it’s permanent. If you think that it’s private, it’s public.”

Most of us—mere rank-and-file social media users—don’t really have to worry about our internet histories being used against us, unless we have particularly malicious enemies. But should someone ever consider a career in the public eye, the entire cache of public (and private) records available online is up for grabs. This conflict was most recently exemplified by the trials and tribulations of Trevor Noah, now the host of The Daily Show. The comedian was mired in controversy after it was announced that he would be taking over the show, and offensive tweets he made over the years began to resurface. They painted a picture of a man who was frequently cruel toward women and deployed painful anti-Semitic stereotypes in his humor. But many of the tweets were made between 2009 and 2012. The most recent example of his distasteful tweets was from 2014, almost a year before he was announced as the new Daily Show host. It contained a cringe-worthy joke about how there’s a “rich Jewish man” behind every “rap billionaire.”

The Daily Show’s Trevor Noah (image via YouTube/Divodd)

The outrage was so acute that Comedy Central was forced to release a statement, and then Noah himself addressed the issue on Twitter. “To reduce my views to a handful of jokes that didn’t land is not a true reflection of my character, nor my evolution as a comedian,” he wrote.

Was one year enough time for Noah to become a new man? He was in his 20s when he wrote most of the tweets in question. Was it fair to hold him accountable for the things he said then? Is the Trevor Noah we now know a much wiser man than the one reflected in those tweets? Noah didn’t lose his job over the tweets, perhaps because Comedy Central’s audience has a higher tolerance for offensive jokes than people on Twitter.

But Buzreba was forced to resign from a campaign that could have catapulted her political career. Weeks, even months after the Twitter scandal, she was still receiving vindictive messages online and off. “I was even getting emails from people that I knew, saying, ‘Oh, we want nothing to do with you’,” she says. She got kicked out of an international relations club at school and two community associations where she volunteered. She felt ostracized.

Buzreba’s story resonated with me on a personal level. As a 24-year-old woman, I’ve lived most of my life on the internet. I can still access my terrible middle school poetry and Harry Potter fan fiction on profiles that are still live. The person that I was at 18, or 20, or even 22, bears only a marginal resemblance to the person that I am now. I’ve learned a lot, and I’m still learning. If ever confronted with the stupid things I said in an English class back in freshman year, I would have no other option but to say, “I’m sorry for those things that I said, but I no longer hold those views.” But the way the internet can be orchestrated to derail someone’s life over past indiscretions means that I might not be able to escape serious consequences over those views—even if they no longer reflect my current self.

Is the answer to this dilemma a statute of limitations on offensive social media posts? Can we put an expiration date on objectionable opinions? Perhaps, in order to build a more compassionate internet, we need a mechanism for forgiveness—a way to allow people to demonstrate an evolution of thought and growth of character. Professor North doesn’t share this concern, arguing that the permanence of our social media presence is a benefit, not a failure, of the system. “The transparency of the way that you live your life digitally or online, is, for the most part, a good thing,” she says. “We’re now in a world where people are accountable for the things they say publicly because digital platforms are public platforms.”

Last year, the European Union made news when it implemented controversial “right to be forgotten” laws, which would allow users to ask internet companies to remove search results they didn’t want to be found. Google, Yahoo, or Bing, for example, would be compelled to cull certain links from search results attached to someone’s name. Critics said the laws were too “broad” and too difficult to enforce. Others said it wasn’t Google’s responsibility to regulate search results. But the rulings gesture at a larger anxiety present in our contemporary culture: that we will always be haunted by the things in our digital past.

But maybe we don’t need a socially agreed-upon “statute of limitations” or a law to make the internet a better place. Maybe all we need is a little more compassion. North says that people who’ve grown up on the internet are already more willing to accept the past mistakes of our future leaders and public figures. “Usually, if people have lived their lives in a solid way for a period of time, then people will overlook the discretions and the bad judgments of their youth,” she says, citing the case of Anthony Weiner.

Maybe. But it’s difficult to overlook the fact that race and gender factor into public responses. Consider Buzreba, who is a Muslim woman who wears the headscarf: Her controversy arose at a time when the Western world was experiencing a sharp rise in Islamophobia. Many of the hateful tweets she received used Islamophobic language. It is well within the boundaries of good reason to assume that Buzreba’s identity as a Muslim woman sharpened the hostility against her.

Hopefully, one day, a couple of years into the future, Buzreba’s harassers will find themselves accountable for their ugly anti-Muslim sentiments. These people, too, will have to be forgiven. Redemption came for Megan Phelps-Roper, the former Westboro Baptist Church member who used to tweet hateful things about queer people and Jews, and it came for Justine Sacco, who got a PR job after enduring a virtual maelstrom of animosity for a racist tweet. Will Ala Buzreba be absolved of her past self too?

I question Buzreba about her tweets again. “Do those sentiments align with who you are right now?”

“No,” she says. “Back then, I wasn’t even living in the same country. I was in a high school halfway across the world. I hadn’t traveled, I hadn’t gone to university. I never even worked a day in my life. I was a dumb kid writing things behind a computer.”

Buzreba is no longer actively pursuing a political career, either, though she’s still involved in politics, through her participation in the Young Liberals of Alberta, a local organization that serves as the Liberal Party’s “youth wing.” Members of the organization can help promote certain policies that they want to see on the national agenda. After stepping down from the campaign, Buzreba tried to get a policy similar to Europe’s “right to be forgotten” laws on the agenda. There wasn’t much interest, but Buzreba will try again.

She doesn’t use Twitter much anymore. But recently, she took part in a Twitter debate about social media use, facilitated by students at the University of Guelph in Ontario. “Is it fair that you were held accountable for tweets written four years ago? Should tweets have an expiry date?” one user asked her.

“Anything you say as a minor should not be used against you. If criminal records can get wiped at 18 why cant tweets?” she wrote back.

In October, a user named “Gratitude Journal” tweeted at her: “#MayaAngelou had stated ‘When someone shows u who they are the first time, believe them.’ A coat hanger?? That is who U are.”

Buzreba responded with one word: “nope.”

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