You post up an ill-advised status on Facebook or Twitter. Or maybe that late-night Snapchat or Instagram share was not-so smart the morning after the night before.
So you delete it and move on – vowing to stay off social media platforms when you’re feeling similarly ‘tired and emotional’.
However, once something goes up online – can it ever truly be erased? Well, the answer is somewhat worrying.
“Whether or not something is deleted isn’t within the user’s control,” says Behnam Dayanim, a Washington, DC-based lawyer who specialises in privacy and cyber security.
Take a regular email. When you delete it from your inbox, it goes to a “deleted items” folder. Empty that folder and you permanently kill the message – or does it?
Not necessarily, adds Mr Dayanim in conversation with menshealth.com, because it could still stick around on your email provider’s servers for an indefinite amount of time.
You can’t really get around this either, since you give these companies explicit permission to hold on to your data when you agree to their vague privacy policies.
So what exactly do social media sites hold onto?
The social network stores data for “as long as necessary to provide products and services to you and others”.
After you delete an email, Gmail “may not immediately delete residual copies from our active servers”.
Twitter doesn’t comment on what it does when you delete a Tweet, but says that “search engines and other third parties may still retain copies of your public information, like your user profile information and public Tweets, even after you have deleted the information from the Twitter Services or deactivated your account.”
When you view a snap, it’s automatically deleted from the company’s servers… in “most cases”. Snapchat “can’t guarantee that the messages will be deleted within a specific timeframe” and says your snap “may remain in backup for a limited period of time.”
The photo app may retain information for “a commercially reasonable time for backup, archival, and/or audit purposes.”
If you’re more than a little freaked out by this, Cyberdust (free for iOS, Android, and Windows platforms) will ease some of your paranoia.
The app claims to permanently wipe every message you send within 100 seconds of recipients reading it – even from company servers.
Otherwise, these tales of online woe might serve as deterrents too:
1) In 2013, PR consultant Justine Sacco Tweeted a tasteless joke: ‘Going to Africa. Hope I don’t get AIDS. Just kidding. I’m white!’ By the time she got off her 11-hour flight, thousands of angry people had responded to the Tweet, and the hashtag #HasJustineLandedYet was trending worldwide.
Shortly after the gaffe, Sacco lost her job. She’s the subject of Jon Ronson’s recent book, So You’ve Been Publicly Shamed.
2) Earlier this year, Rory Cullinan, former chairman of the Royal Bank Of Scotland, was fired from his position after his daughter posted screenshots of their private Snapchat messages to her Instagram account. Cullinan sent snaps from his office, with captions like “Another friggin meeting.” Seems innocent enough, but weeks later, Cullinan was canned.
3) When a Buckingham Palace guard posted commented about Kate Middleton on his Facebook page, calling her a “posh bitch” and “stupid stuck-up cow,” he was relieved him of his duties guarding the Royal Wedding in 2011.
4) In 2014, James Franco messaged a 17-year-old on Instagram, asking if she was single and wanted to meet up. The girl asked for proof that it was Franco, which the actor provided, and then posted screenshots of the exchange on Imgur.
Franco copped to the exchange, but landed a seedy reputation for chatting up teens.
5) Amy Pascal, one of Hollywood’s most powerful executives, recently stepped down from her role as head of Sony’s movie division after hackers released private emails between her and other producers late last year. In her messages, Pascal made racially insensitive comments about Barack Obama and insulted celebrities like Angelina Jolie.
So ultimately, it’s probably best to ask yourself a few key questions every time you’re about to send something out, namely: Will this get me fired? Will it keep me from landing a job in the future? Will it hurt someone?
If your status, photo, or text can’t pass the test, it probably isn’t worth posting.