This article was originally published on my Forbes column here.
On June 30, 2017, the New Jersey rapper Tay-K (born Taymor McIntyre and also known as Tay-K 47) uploaded a music video called “The Race” to YouTube. Wanted for murder in connection to a crime committed when he was just 16 years old, Tay-K had been on the lam since escaping house arrest three months earlier. The music video shows him waving a gun and making it clear that he had no intention of going to trial.
Both the song and the video have a raw authenticity that helped them go viral. Tay-K was rapping about his own truth and wasn’t simply another posturing artist fronting a facade. Today, “The Race” has 168 million views on YouTube. Tay-K wasn’t so lucky: Working off tips that streamed in on the heels of the video, U.S. Marshals arrested him later that day.
Tay-K’s story paints a clear picture of the absurdity of “self-snitching,” a phenomenon in which people post evidence of their crimes on social media. Most high-profile cases of self-snitching come from the rap world: For example, both Chicago rapper Chief Keef and New York rapper Tekashi 69 have run afoul of the law thanks to videos posted online.
However, self-snitching is just one symptom of a broader cultural phenomenon. We are living in a time when young people literally fall off buildings while looking for a perfect Instagram shot. Desperate for the dopamine hit that comes with social media likes and shares, people are going to increasingly extreme measures to get immediate notification gratification. As a result, many people post first and ask questions later—only to find that their choices come back to haunt them. They’re accidental self-snitchers, and this might be their moment.
Rise of the self-snitchers
Social media hasn’t just made it more tempting to self-snitch on purpose. By multiplying the number of platforms available for online sharing and removing any friction from the posting process, social media has also made it much easier to self-snitch by accident. With the click of a button on Twitter, Instagram, Facebook or any number of other apps, an inattentive user can ruin his or her reputation and possibly their career. Rather than a quest for likes, this kind of self-snitching usually arises from simple stupidity.
The poster boy for this kind of self-snitching is Anthony Weiner, who infamously tweeted a lewd picture of himself because he didn’t understand how to send a direct message. Ted Cruz—or the staffer who ran his social media—could be a runner up for the title. In 2017, Cruz’s official Twitter account liked a pornographic tweet, setting off a flurry of speculation about the sexual habits of the conservative senator, who previously defended Texas’ ban on sex toys.
But while rappers seem to end up in prison or worse for their crimes, the political class rarely seems to suffer for their own self-snitching. In this case, at least, what Donald Trump said seems true: He really could shoot a man in the middle of Fifth Avenue and get away with it, by virtue of being a politician—at least, if the evidence was posted online.
On a recent episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” the bespectacled host described numerous offensive posts and tweets by Australian politicians who were somehow still able to run for office. The posts included anti-Muslim, homophobic and anti-Semitic comments, as well as a rape joke and “a plethora of lewd photos” one candidate posted to his personal Facebook.
Closer to home, the former governor of Virginia’s poor judgment was exposed when the public discovered his medical school yearbook, which included photos of him in blackface and Klansman attire. Even Weiner had a real chance to resurrect his career after his first offense. (It was a later incident involving sexting a minor that finally put him in prison.)
We can only imagine what would have happened if Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh had access to social media in high school, when he allegedly raped a classmate. But experience suggests that even if damning evidence of his misdeeds had been posted online, the end result might have been the same. Politicians—particularly white, male politicians—have long self-snitched online without real repercussions.
Soon, however, that might change. As investor Mark Cuban pointed out in a recent Inc. interview, software can already predict your purchase habits and product preferences based on which posts you like and who you follow on social media. Someday, that same data could be used to predict other actions, including your likelihood of committing crimes. It sounds like something out of the sci-fi world of Minority Report, but it’s not far from reality today. All of us—including white, male aspiring politicians—would be foolish not to prepare for it.
Think twice before posting
The takeaway is simple: People should curate what they post online and stop posting stupid stuff. If posting something seems questionable, then you shouldn’t post it. In our social media-obsessed universe, too many people believe that the more likes they get, the happier they will be. If wild and crazy content earns more attention, that public approval must make it okay to post.
But the truth is that most people will be just as happy with 14 likes on a post as they would be with 80,000. Social media “success” will never bring enough happiness to justify centering your life around your uploads—let alone risking your reputation. In addition, around 70% of hiring managers screen candidates’ social media before deciding to hire them. If nothing else, people should understand that their posts impact their potential career success.
If you’re struggling to stick to a social media diet, just repeat this mantra: Not everyone needs to know every single thing about your day. Up until the last decade or two, our species survived just fine without posting every thought they had, so your day won’t be ruined if you don’t know the shape of the heart in Karen’s latte. Even if it doesn’t seem like it now, in our constant rush of 21st-century technological innovation, your life on social media is much less important than your real life—and more people should remember that. At some point, the best answer may be to just unplug.