My first internship was covering state politics. College parties were nothing compared to the drinking, carousing and eye-opening public behavior I saw during the legislative session. It was the 1970s — a mere decade after the “Mad Men“ ’60s. Each week brought a new jaw-dropper, such as when a legislator told me he’d be happy to discuss a bill he filed; I should just sit on his (very rotund) lap and get comfortable. Another fledgling reporter did, but I quietly declined — as a matter of fact I was too stunned to say anything at all.
Years later, a manager shared some wise words: Elected officials are indeed representative of the public. There are smart and dumb ones, honest and crooked ones — basically people of all types.
Which brings us to Rep. Anthony Weiner, who admitted to sending explicit photos of himself to 26-year-old Meagan Broussard and other young women. Broussard told ABC News the discussion started when she posted on his Facebook page that she thought he was hot.
Weiner is the latest in a long line of politicians and public figures caught with their pants down. If my supervisor’s axiom is true — that Weiner truly represents the public — then so-called sexting (a person sending sexually explicit photos of him or herself via text or social media) is more common than many might think.
“It’s in the mainstream for both adolescents and adults,” said Emory University professor Nadine Kaslow, chief psychologist for the Grady Health System. Kaslow said people often flirt via text or social media because it actually feels safer.
“You think you’re protected,” she said. “People often think they’re less likely to be found out.” In other words, because meeting in public might raise eyebrows, many people assume — incorrectly — that direct messages are more discrete.
Depending on the people and situation, she said, sexting can run the gamut from simple flirtation to serious trouble. “We don’t have clear sex etiquette about this,” Kaslow said. “It could be all over the map.”
She said some people never have physical contact, while others want a more direct connection. One danger, she added, is that people sometimes become addicted, as they would with pornography. When that happens, she said, judgment is hampered. “They really aren’t thinking.”
Kaslow also warned that it’s not always average people pushing the envelope. “At times there’s evidence it’s associated with child porn,” she said, “and we need to be really concerned about that.”
A False Sense of Anonymity
“The time you spend online has drastic consequences in your real life,” added Stanford University professor Jeremy Bailenson. Bailenson, author of “Infinite Reality: Avatars, Eternal Life, New Worlds, and the Dawn of the Virtual Revolution,” said people have no idea that online behavior can be used to both identify people and predict their behavior.
“People believe they’re anonymous and believe they can get away with things they could never get away with in real life, but that moment is better preserved online than in a face-to-face manner,” he said.
As for why people sext, Bailenson said it’s basic human nature. “The idea that people want to see each other without clothes has been around for as long as humans have.” What’s changed is that mobile devices and social media let them share images more compellingly than pen and paper or phone ever could.
“Seeing virtually can in some ways be preferable to seeing them physically,” he said. “There’s no danger of violence or STDs.” He added that people like Weiner underestimate the power of the Internet. “The true danger is the technology creates the illusion of being anonymous, but because the digital footprint is so vast and so trackable it actually makes (him) more accountable had he pulled his pants down face to face.”
Weiner clearly knew the danger. In an interview with The New York Times conducted a few weeks before the scandal came to light, Weiner said he realized that using social media could be risky. Reporter Ashley Parker asked if he feared making a mistake that could make him “a cautionary Twitter tale.”
“Yeah, I think about that,” he told Parker, “but that’s true of this interview and it’s true just about anywhere nowadays. You’ve got to be cautious.”
“I won’t always be politically correct,” the Times quoted him as saying, “and I’m sorry in advance.”
Terri Thornton, a former investigative reporter and TV news producer, owns Thornton Communications, an award-winning PR and social media firm. She is also a freelance editor for Strategic Finance and Management Accounting Quarterly.