Irresponsibility and the Internet

America learned a valuable lesson this week:  Never do anything you wouldn't want to see posted on the Internet – and never, ever assume anything posted on the Internet is private. 

The lesson comes at the expense of Amy Polumbo, the current Miss New Jersey and Miss America hopeful, who was blackmailed over pictures she had posted on her own Facebook profile. 

According to NBC's Today show, state pageant officials received two packages of pictures of Polumbo with an anonymous letter threatening to release the pictures publicly unless she stepped down.  Pageant officials met July 12 to discuss whether the pictures warrant taking away Polumbo's tiara.    

Polumbo and her lawyer, Anthony Caruso, appeared on the July 12 Today show to reveal the pictures in question. While Polumbo acknowledged that the pictures are not “lady-like,” they contained no nudity or pornographic content, though some pictures could be seen as suggestive.  They merely depict a college girl goofing around with her friends.  Facebook's code of conduct even states, “you may not post or share content that is obscene, pornographic or sexually explicit.”

Granted, the word “obscene” doesn't mean the same thing to a college student as it does to say, a Miss America pageant official.  On Today Palumbo herself recognized that “what I think is OK, someone else's eyebrows could be raised.” The officials ultimately allowed Polumbo to continue as Miss New Jersey.

Polumbo's experience illustrates that nobody should expect privacy on the Internet.  A July 12 AP article points out that “Embarrassment isn't the only consequence of personal photos surfacing. Many employers troll social networking sites like My Space, Facebook and others when checking out a job applicant or keeping tabs on employees.” 

Even Cosmopolitan, a magazine known for encouraging “fun, fearless” behavior in young woman, cites in its August issue a Purdue University survey that found “50 percent of employers look into candidates through search engines, social-networking sites, and personal blogs…and what they found influenced almost 40 percent of their decisions.”   Cosmo further warned readers that “These days, when everything in the Googleverse is available online, young women need to think about how nude photos could hurt their future job searches…or haunt their romantic relationships and even their future mother-in-law.”   While the Cosmo article specifically addressed nude photos, the principle can be applied to any photos posted online. 

According to The Philadelphia Inquirer, Palumbo's platform, ironically, is “working for Internet safety and against online predators.”  Her scandal, while embarrassing for her, may have done more for her cause than any speech she could have delivered.  At the very least it illustrated how easily pictures and circumstances can be misconstrued.

Colleen Raezler is a research assistant at the Culture and Media Institute, a division of the Media Research Center.