Rashmi Samant was all over the news in India (and in Karnataka, given that she studied in Manipal Institute of Technology earlier) as recently as February 12-13. After all, she became the first Indian woman to occupy the position of president of the Oxford Student Union. She reportedly bagged more than the combined votes of the other three contestants for the post!
Yet, yesterday (February 18th), the same media that had reported her earlier achievement were also forced to report that she was stepping down from that post.
Reason? Because people found some very old social media posts by her (on Instagram) where she commented insensitively (about race, gender and nationality).
I’m not keen to go into the specifics of what she wrote and whether it is really insensitive or not (we have all been there, done that – we’re all human, after all), my specific area of interest here is the fact that old social media posts coming back to haunt someone.
This is not new, of course. Way too many people have been ‘exposed’ based on what they said long ago, and implying that they still hold those views even as they say something contrasting now… and then calling them ‘hypocrites’.
Just observe the nuance here.
Was Rashmi ‘wrong’ to hold those opinions that she had shared (even as jokes)? Possibly – maybe, or maybe not. The point is, we don’t know even know her – who are we to judge her?
Does holding those views, back then, make her a ‘bad’ person? Again – who are we to conclude whether she was bad or not? We’re complete strangers, for her. Unless she acted on those beliefs in a way that affects another human being, how does it even matter to anyone?
Yet, she had shared them on social media, for the whole world to see… and form an opinion about her. It doesn’t matter whether they were from 2021 or 2002. When it surfaces and is seen by a lot of people, that’s what matters.
For the students of Oxford, does that matter? Now, we’re getting somewhere. The reason for the post-election-win furore was not because she held those opinions, but because they presumed that such views, when held and when aired publicly (regardless of when they were aired) could affect her functioning as the president of the Oxford Student Union, interacting with students of multiple races and nationalities!
The union body could ask her for an explanation and she could respond perfectly legitimately (that these were from a very different Rashmi, long ago, and her present state doesn’t reflect these views at all), but when other students come across such posts, they could view her in a certain way. And that affects her credibility in their eyes.
Ironically, the only sector where such contrasting opinions from the past do not affect an individual is politics. We have seen almost every single politician being ‘outed’ with their earlier tweets that is in complete contrast to their current stand. Yet, these hardly seem to matter after the initial ‘outrage’.
In the corporate world, this could have serious ramifications impacting career prospects. The Rashmi-incident demonstrates that the same could happen in the college space too.
So, all the more reason to be cognizant of what you share in terms of your views, and how you share them, in terms of articulation. Remember the basic fact – there is no one specific kind of audience that reads/watches your content on social media. The WHOLE WORLD can and does read/watch it.
You have no control whatsoever over how someone may understand what you wrote. But you are in reasonable control of ensuring that what you wrote could not be perceived in a way that you did not mean.
So, before you share anything online – think very, very hard.
Question yourself – what is the meaning/implication of what you are about to share? Can it be understood in more than one way than what you had actually intended? If so, can you edit to mean something specific, unambiguously?
Yet, despite such checks and precautions, we could all still go wrong. We are, after all, human.
But better safe, than sorry. You don’t want something written unthinkingly to come and haunt you in the future.
Ideally, we should not be treating social media as a casual communication and fun tool anymore at all, at a societal level. We should be teaching children at the school level about the power and perils of having a global voice through social media. And how what they say impacts assorted segments, including themselves.
We treat social media so callously because it is free and is available to everyone without any effort. If we paid a fee for it, perhaps we would all take it a lot more seriously because then we’d want to get something tangible out of it (for the money’s worth). But these platforms are likely to be completely free for a long, long time. That is their business model – get people in, freely and make them spend a LONG time.
But, we do pay a price that is a lot more valuable than money – we pay with our time. That’s all the more reason why children and young people need to be made aware of the potential of social media, and how things could go wrong (there are so many examples already) very young, so that they are equipped with a cohesive thought process on how they would want to make use of these platforms.