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How social media can ruin your online reputation

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by Staff Writer

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This post has been modified to reflect new information since its original publication.

Does the name Lindsey Stone ring a bell? It might, because, in 2012 she was involved in a social media scandal that rocked the Internet and tarnished her online reputation. Stone was visiting the Arlington National Cemetery with her work when a colleague snapped a photo of her raising her middle finger and miming that she was shouting in front of a sign that read “Silence and Respect.”

Stone posted the image to Facebook because she thought it was funny, but she soon incurred a monumental Internet backlash for it. Online users commented on the original picture, calling her “evil” and sending death threats her way. But the fallout from the picture didn’t stop there. Not only did her employer dismiss her from her job, but her online reputation was also ruined. Stone found herself unable to leave her house for a year afterward and struggled to find work.

Unfortunately, situations like these are becoming increasingly more common in the age of social media. Sites like Twitter and Facebook may have dramatically altered the way we connect with others and interact with the world around us, but they also have the power to shape our online reputation.

Is social media impacting your online reputation? Find out with our free Reputation Report Card. Start Your Scan

If you aren’t careful enough, then your social media presence can actually have a negative effect on the way others perceive you online. Whether you use these sites solely for personal reasons or you are trying to cultivate a professional brand, the things you share create an image of who you are to friends, colleagues, business connections, and strangers. As such, you need to ensure that you’re putting your best foot forward on these platforms. Only by doing so can you prevent them from taking a toll on your online reputation down the line.

The real-life impact of social media

Social media isn’t just for sharing fun selfies or bragging about your vacation plans anymore. The line between our digital and real lives has blurred, leaving many feeling the undeniable sting of a bad online reputation—even when they’re not connected to one of their devices. Let’s take a look at some of the people whose online reputations were irreparably damaged by social media use:

Twitter PR blunder loses woman her job

In 2013, a public relations executive made the biggest PR blunder of her career before boarding a flight to South Africa. The woman took to Twitter with an ill-conceived message that connected the AIDS epidemic with race, and users on the site quickly responded with an overwhelmingly negative response. Before she could even land, the tweet garnered 2,000 retweets and even appeared on Buzzfeed. Not only was her online reputation tarnished, but she also lost her job as a result of a message that contained fewer than 140 characters.

Stolen identity leads to impersonation on Facebook

Personal mistakes aren’t the only way your online reputation can take a hit on social media. Take Kerry Harvey. When her identity was stolen via Facebook, the damage went far beyond her online reputation. Web hijackers used her name to create an illegitimate Facebook page that identified her as a prostitute. The 23-year-old sales executive then began receiving inappropriate pictures and unwanted calls on her cell phone. She soon received a friend request from an unknown Facebook user whose profile displayed her photograph, date of birth, full name, phone number—and her apparent career.

Given how much attention the fraudulent account ultimately attracted, Harvey found it difficult to go out in public and interact with other people. This case of online abuse went far beyond the computer screen and into her real life, damaging her reputation and confidence.

Twitter fraudster parades as a movie star

Even movie star Jonah Hill (“Superbad” and “Get Him to the Greek”) experienced online reputation trouble after an impersonator created a Twitter account using his name. The user soon instigated a Twitter feud with actor-director Jon Favreau (“Iron Man” and “Iron Man 2”), who ended up calling Hill to express his displeasure. The fake account also sent disparaging Tweets to other celebs and comedians, which ultimately prompted Hill’s friends to begin questioning his behavior.

Hill eventually had to clear up his online reputation with an appearance on the “Late Show with David Letterman.” During his interview, he stated that he was not on Twitter and would never join the site, so the fake account could not have been his own.

Poor reputation hits home

No one is immune to the effects that social networking can have on one’s reputation both on and offline. Sure, the posts you make on social media may captivate your friends, but could they also prevent you from obtaining your dream job?

You may not know it, but recruiters regularly use social media to vet candidates that they are looking to hire. In fact, more than half of hiring managers have reevaluated their decision to hire someone based on what they found on social media.

Is social media impacting your online reputation? Find out with our free Reputation Report Card. Start Your Scan

According to the 2016 Jobvite Recruiter Nation Report (PDF), 87 percent of hiring managers rely on LinkedIn when evaluating potential hires (not so surprising)—but nearly half (43 percent) will also search for you on Facebook, and a quarter will look through your Twitter.

You may be surprised how closely they look at your posts. For instance, candidates who publicly post unprofessional photos look bad in the eyes of hiring managers, 47 percent of whom see it as negative that may reflect your professionalism in general. Recruiters also said too many typos on social media caused them to reject candidates. Yes, simple spelling mistakes from throwaway posts you fired off from your smartphone could prevent you from landing a job.

So what can I do to control my online reputation while using social media?

Social media can pose many threats to your online reputation, so you will need to take a multi-faceted approach to your reputation management strategy. Here are the best ways to get a handle on your online reputation on social networking sites.

Stake your claim on social media

You may have expected us to say you should avoid social media, but that’s a mistake. In this day and age, you simply can’t afford to shy away from social media if you’re looking to build or preserve your online reputation. You will only do yourself a disservice if you underutilize social media platforms. That said, you have to use them correctly.

Establish yourself on every site

From Facebook to Instagram to LinkedIn, you should be making a name for yourself on every social media site that you can. Having a personal or business username on multiple platforms will be a huge benefit to your online reputation and helps to prevent impersonation or identity theft.

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Keep up-to-date profiles

You don’t need to post on every platform all the time, but at the least make sure your profiles look respectable and are up to date.

Choose your voice

You don’t have to agonize over every emoji you post to social media, but you should be somewhat mindful of the tone that you’re projecting to others.

Take a hint from the experts

To best gauge how you should be posting, take a hint from other professionals in your line of work. How are industry leaders utilizing their own social media feeds? Follow their example and shape your social networking platforms to convey exactly the message and image that you want to get across. This will help secure an excellent online reputation amongst those that follow you.

Mind your words

Taking back a mean or stupid comment on social media isn’t as easy as deleting the content. Many attempt tactics such as the “Tweet and Delete” to prevent their disparaging comments from reaching the public eye, but someone is always bound to see the content before it disappears. It is far more beneficial to your online reputation to choose your words and subject matter wisely before making a new post.

Deal with those who are out to tarnish your reputation

Not all issues with online reputation stem from your own use of social networking platforms. Whether someone takes to these platforms to express their displeasure about your business or spread defamatory comments about you, more people are using social media to air their grievances than ever before. When left unchecked, these comments can take a serious toll on your online reputation.

Is social media impacting your online reputation? Find out with our free Reputation Report Card. Start Your Scan

Respond to professional complaints

If you use social media for business or professional purposes, there’s no getting around the fact that you’ll need to deal with the occasional complaint. You should make every effort to reach out to the complainer in as short a time as possible. As difficult as it may be to read these posts, they can have an even more negative impact on your online reputation if you simply ignore them. In these cases, you should use social media responses to address any mistakes made on your part, express your empathy, and ensure that you will fix any wrongdoings.

But not to harassment or defamation

It’s important to note, however, that you can’t address every online comment with a few social media replies. Some comments may cross the line into the realm of defamation. If you or your business are fielding particularly damaging allegations, then don’t respond. Instead, get legal counsel to determine the best course of action.

Be aware of your friend lists

The definition of “friend” has dramatically changed in the era of social media. Often, your “friends” on these sites are either old acquaintances that you haven’t talked to in years or people who you’ve never actually met in person. This isn’t to say that these kinds of relationships are necessarily bad, but they can, in some cases, wreak havoc on your online reputation.

Follow the “golden ratio”

On Twitter, your online reputation is based on the users you follow and who follows you. Occasionally you’ll see users who follow a larger number of people than they have following them. This is in violation of something called the “golden ratio” and can even cause other users to view you in a negative light. So if you follow 1,000 users and you only have 100 followers, your odds of gaining a positive online reputation on Twitter will significantly decrease. Try to gain a closer balance between following and followers.

Decline friend requests from strangers

Have you ever received a Facebook friend request from a random user? If you accept, then you open yourself to the possibility that they will infringe upon your digital privacy or even steal your identity. The best way to protect yourself is to simply decline these requests or adjust your Facebook privacy settings to allow only friends of friends to add you to their friend list.

Use social media management tools

Social media management tools encompass the various software programs and websites that are designed to help business owners manage their social networking pages. Some will help you monitor hundreds of comments at once while others can help you manage their Twitter account. Automated monitoring tools like Google Alerts, Hootsuite, and Rankur are essential to keeping track of your online reputation on social media.