Earl Long: close-lipped

Eight years ago, I was up at odd hours of the night, helping my wife care for a newborn. After a bit of noodling on the internet I discovered and joined the wonderful (and wonderfully small) community of South Louisiana bloggers. We discussed politics and current events and mocked the stupid things written on other websites. It was fun and (for me) much more productive than yelling at cable TV news.

So, yes, I understand the therapeutic value of online opinion writing. It can be cathartic to vent about topics and “release” your published rants for all to see. Sometimes my posts would stir passions in my blog’s comment section and the arguing would continue ad nauseam.

There was a drawback to all this fun: Unedited words written in the heat of the moment get archived. Then later, at a distance, selected quotes can appear short-sighted and harsh. Regrettable, even. I got a dose of comeuppance last week when I attended the 10th anniversary show of Politics with a Punch, and conversed with numerous politicos and pundits I had previously called thieves, liars or idiots.

Painful as those encounters were, the stakes are rather low for an opinion writer like me. Public figures, on the other hand, can get crucified for a loose, acidic tongue. Even if a well-known person pens a thousand informed opinions on Facebook or Twitter, if they slip up once (and it’s a doozy) none of those other things matter. The error will go viral – “He said what?!” – and that one-time stupidity will create a lasting impression.

You’ll recall that federal prosecutor Sal Perricone submitted his resignation to U.S. Attorney Jim Letten last month, after his online rants at Nola.com were uncovered. Perricone wrote under a nom de plume, and while he probably uttered a wise word here or there, for the most part he arrogantly chastised others for being stupid. His constant smarter-than-thou posture, combined with his insider-style viewpoint, raised suspicions among landfill magnate Fred Heebe’s legal team. Last week U.S. Attorney Jim Letten recused his office from the investigation into Heebe’s River Birch landfill, likely because of Perricone’s online diatribes.

On Monday, the Times Picayune reported:

In his anonymous online rants, federal prosecutor Sal Perricone took a lot of chances – trashing federal judges, criticizing his boss and encouraging gun owners to go to former Mayor Ray Nagin’s house, for instance. But his most ill-advised comment may have been one in which he suggested James Carter, a former City Council member and now a top adviser to Mayor Mitch Landrieu, had committed a crime.

In doing so, Perricone violated a cardinal rule of federal prosecutors: He made reference to a federal investigation, one that was unknown to the public.

Perricone’s lawyers say he broke no law, but he has certainly suffered professional consequences for his “ill-advised” statements. I’ve called on Perricone to apologize for coaxing gun owners to visit Mayor Nagin’s house.

According to The Militant website:

Jason Giroir, [an NOPD officer who shot Justin Sipp in a shootout March 1] was forced to resign from the force … over racist comments he posted online in response to a WWL-TV article about a rally supporting Trayvon Martin. He wrote, “Act like a Thug Die like one!” After another reader, Eddie Johnson, criticized his comment, Giroir wrote, “Eddie come on down to our town with a ‘Hoodie’ and you can join Martin in HELL and talk about your racist stories.”

Again, nothing excuses Perricone’s violent-sounding innuendo or Giroir’s racially-tinged threat. I condemn those statements and agree with their consequences. However, the rest of us shouldn’t feel a false sense of security merely because we haven’t expressed similarly hateful garbage. Perricone and Giroir are extreme examples, but we’ve all made ill-advised statements at one time or another.

And our evolving social media technologies – in addition to being convenient, fun, and therapeutic – increasingly expose our fleeting thoughts to public review, even years later. The potential repercussions  are considerable – and getting heavier.

Already Facebook is blamed for one in five U.S. divorces, and one in three in the U.K.. The next boomlet will probably be employers “screening” applicants’ social media histories.

We’re slow to catch up, too. We’ve used email and cell phones for a couple of decades, yet still errantly assume our conversations on those devices are “private,” despite ever-present news stories about people getting busted for thing they’ve written or through the GPS function on their phones.

As we willingly post more and more data about ourselves, potential employers and others will be able to use algorithms to analyze our online content for “problems.” Perhaps, after receiving poor service, you once expressed a strongly negative opinion about a company. Well, guess what? The company you’re currently applying to work for now owns the company you trashed, and they have a very sophisticated online background check. Is it possible that your “ill-advised” statements will affect your hiring? Is it so crazy to imagine that perhaps one day, instead of a credit score, we’ll also have “social media volatility and risk” scores? Poorly chosen words might hound us worse than collection agencies.

Sure, there’s the old “if you got nothing to hide, you don’t have to worry” attitude. But that logic has led to public sanction for crime cameras, traffic cameras, flying drones, and cell phone monitoring, as well as online data aggregation and profiling. Eventually we’ll have our houses equipped with cameras in each room (monitored by a security firm) “to keep us safe.” Who knows, maybe that’s already happening.

Technology trends have made for the promulgation and wide exposure of hasty opinions. There’s less and less thought behind each word in our online texts, while our mistakes can get widely broadcast and permanently archived. Impulsive statements are encouraged, despite these elevated risks. Makes a social media stalwart like myself wonder if wily 1950s-era Governor Earl Long’s quote, with a little updating, is as true as ever:

Don’t write anything you can phone. Don’t phone anything you can talk. Don’t talk anything you can whisper. Don’t whisper anything you can smile. Don’t smile anything you can nod. Don’t nod anything you can wink.

Mark Moseley

Mark Moseley blogs at Your Right Hand Thief. Until mid 2014, Mark Moseley was The Lens' opinion writer, engagement specialist and coordinator for the Charter Schools Reporting Corps. After Katrina and...