At the Crossroads of Media, Culture and Technology

The Digital Ethics of Weinergate

If you somehow missed it, New York Congressional Representative Andrew Weiner is being paraded around as the latest exhibit in an especially lively spring sex scandal season. What I’ve found most interesting about “Weinergate” hasn’t been the scandal, but the questions it raises about certain digital media ethics.

While admitting his online indiscretions, Weiner stated that there was no prior relationship between him and Whatcom Community College student Gennette Cordova, the intended recipient of a photo of him in his boxer shorts:
“Last Friday night, I tweeted a photograph of myself that I intended to send as a direct message as part of a joke to a woman in Seattle…. This woman was unwittingly dragged into this and bears absolutely no responsibility. I am so sorry to have disrupted her life in this way.” (source)

Part One: Reputation Management

The site that first broke the story has since doggedly documented a number of online affairs that Weiner has admitted to. From the way publisher Andrew Breitbard has injected himself into the story it seems clear that if he had any evidence of a previous relationship between Cordova and Weiner he would happily share it. But even in the absence of evidence of a relationship, the story is frequently being reported as though Cordova and Weiner had been having an ongoing virtual affair, as in this quote from Time magazine: “…it had been intended for viewing only by a woman in Seattle with whom he’d developed an online relationship.” (source)

At this point the most interesting part of the story is no longer Weiner. The story is now as much about Cordova, the apparent bystander, who seems to have been dragged into the fray more or less at random. That is unfortunate, but also instructive. (Although I use Cordova’s name in this article, it was a difficult choice for me to do so. If her name hadn’t already been splashed about the Internet I wouldn’t have used it.)

Perhaps in part because she is a media-savvy journalism student, Cordova’s response to the situation could be used as the model on how to defend personal reputation through digital media.

The uncomfortable fact for all of us is that, while we may never get associated with a scandal of this magnitude, the current state of online privacy protection in the United States means that we, or people close to us, might well experience it to some degree.

In Cordova’s accounting of the story, she never saw the initial tweet. Discovering that she was being mentioned in a number of tweets referencing it she initially thought a smear campaign against Weiner was underway and she’d been picked out of his list of Twitter followers. So she blocked accounts she found harassing, and made her Tweetstream private.

But, as she later wrote in a public statement, “Within about an hour, however, I realized that I had grossly underestimated the severity of the situation that I had somehow become a part of.” Cordova switched gears and went into damage control mode.

Where it used to be that the only recourse for getting a message out would be to talk through a publicist, or to a reporter you trusted, Cordova skipped the intermediary and refused to talk to the press during the initial frenzy. Instead she again made her Tweetstream public (for several days her Twitter bio read simply “I can’t believe I’m back on Twitter again”) and began talking about the press.

• GennetteC: A lot of these journalists are incompetent hacks… maybe I should reconsider my professional aspirations.
• GennetteC: FoxNews, when did I say that it wasn’t the first time I’d “received lewd messages from the person who hacked the congressman’s account”?
• GennetteC: Thank you, to the writer of the article I just read, for posting my height and weight online. You disgust me.

Even when she addressed her comments to specific publications, Cordova didn’t link to them, denying them easy traffic to their sites from her sudden Twitter visibility.

She engaged directly with other Twitter users who accused her of lying about a relationship with Weiner, pointing them to the stories she found portrayed the situation accurately. The catch-22 that she found herself in didn’t escape her commentary:

• GennetteC: “If u recede from the public, youre accused of hiding something. If u face down your accusers, youre accused of being an attention whore.”
• GennetteC: I was accused of being an attention whore last night. Really? I’ve denied every single interview request I’ve gotten.

Frustrated that the press stories were using snapshots of her taken from social media sites which often showed her in party situations, she agreed to pose for a photographer working for the New York Post. In her telling, the photographer’s assistant proved to be a “Trojan horse,” and actually was a reporter who wrote a story representing their conversation during the photo shoot as an “exclusive interview”. True to form, she called out the Post‘s behavior on Twitter and didn’t back down.
• GennetteC: If I’ve refused to do interviews with credible shows like Good Morning America, why would I give an interview to @NewYorkPost?
• GennetteC: You got that information surreptitiously and then passed it off as an interview… @Newyorkpost
• GennetteC: Then you proceeded to take my quotes out of context and STILL I don’t see how it’s newsworthy!! @Newyorkpost
• GennetteC: Reuven Fenton, who posed as a photog assistant, sleazebag “writer” for the @newyorkpost, I’ll remember the name.
• MartaR73: @gennetteC u asked if people on Twitter have no right of privacy? ans: not if they continue to tweet & stir pot as you do on a nat’l story
• GennetteC: @MartaR73 If calling out publications for their inaccurate/ shoddy journalism is stirring the pot, so be it.

Because of Cordova’s tweets, the ethics of the New York Post story became something of a story in its own right.

One interesting way Cordova has approached managing her reputation has been to actively curate her tweet history. After engaging in a testy exchange with another Twitter user, she frequently goes back later and deletes her tweets. As she must know perfectly well from what happened even after Weiner deleted his tweet, her exchanges aren’t gone — in fact, I’m sure everything Cordova has said lately is being thoroughly cataloged by a number of people with various agendas — but the act sends a message about what she thinks is truly important and what is just a distraction.

After almost a week of holding the press at bay, Cordova willingly spoke to the New York Times. The resulting article, “In Reckless Fashion, Rapid Online Pursuits of Political Admirers” was not about her, but quoted her as a source on Rep. Weiner’s pattern of sexting behavior.
Although the situation she was in began because of someone else’s use of social media, Cordova’s ensuing social media use was unique and instructive. A reporter I spoke to, who has also been watching Cordova’s Twitter stream, remarked that it’s common to see celebrity accounts used for reputation management, but in those cases the tweeter is almost always a paid PR person. The reporter could not recall ever seeing anyone take on the task of managing her own reputation so directly.

Ben Smith, a reporter for Politico, openly expressed his admiration for Cordova’s skillful handling of an unimaginably stressful situation:
• benpolitico: .@gennettec, again, only person in this mess to have played her media hand perfectly.

The social media disaster that Rep. Weiner kicked off is going to have a lifelong impact on the woman he sent a picture of his junk to. The worst of it will fade quickly, but there’s always going to be someone who will remember something about her and the scandal that ensued and the evidence of the scandal will always be archived somewhere and just a few mouse clicks away.

The question is: which version of the story will they remember? Will it be the one about a party gal who had a cyber affair with a congressman, or will it be the one about the journalism student who was the innocent recipient of a crude photo and used Twitter to set the record straight? Are the skills that she has shown in actively managing her reputation skills that emerging generations will find useful in managing their own media-mediated lives?

Part Two: When Is a Flash not a Flash?

In a previous career, I got paid to write in a snarky tone about entertainment and media news. At times it was sort of a dream job for a smartass like me. Back then, a story like “Weinergate” would have been a golden opportunity to squeeze every drop of adolescent humor out of an fleeting moment of absurdity–then add one clever twist at the end that provided something approaching thoughtful commentary or, failing that, at least a capstone of double or triple-entendre.

The comedic approach is so appealing because it is distancing. The Weiner story is a trainwreck: It not only involves left vs. right, it also gets into thorny issues of sexual mores and personal privacy. Comedy allows us to express opinions while giving shelter against the offense the humor might cause. Let’s face it, a guy named “Weiner” posting pictures of his autonymic parts online really is funny.

Without comedy, wading into ongoing scandals can be dangerous. Trying to analyze the ethics of what happens to the players in these scandals is to invariably risk offending someone.

So, here I go.

People break society’s rules all the time, and we judge them based mostly on our perception of the severity of their actions and how dumb the transgression is. It’s probably safe to say that Weiner’s admitted extramarital “sexting” is less transgressive than the arrest of the International Monetary Fund head and presumptive next president of France for alleged rape, or the former Governator of California revealing that he concealed having fathered a child with a housekeeper for over a decade.

But what if Weiner and his sexting partners were engaging in the exact same acts while sharing a physical space? It feels like the transgression is greater. But why? Does the mediation (in this case through Twitter) of a transgressive act changes how inappropriate it is?

What about the unasked-for sending of a photo that borders on obscenity? Certainly a Congressman dropping trou while standing in front of a woman might well cause a firestorm. But is doing the same thing online equally offensive? In real life, such an action might suggest imminent physical danger to the woman, but when mediated, that threat is largely nullified.

Does that mean the online act is not the moral equivalent of the physical one?

Like humor, media can have a distancing effect on what we observe. Our reactions to images, behaviors, and ideas expressed in mediated forms can be much cooler than our reactions to those identical things would be in real life. As we increasingly live significant parts of our lives online, what effect will this distancing have on the way we interact in real life?

When talking about Congress legislating media law—like net neutrality legislation—people often point out that we are asking our legislators to make important decisions about emerging technologies. In some cases these are technologies with which the Congressperson may have little practical experience or understanding.

Most states have enacted laws that extend consumer protections to online purchases, and also have laws making cyberbullying, cyberstalking, and cyberharassment equivalent to their real-life counterparts (source). Gennette Cordova has pointed out, probably rightly, that in the aftermath of Weiner’s tweet, a number of Twitter users have engaged with her in ways that might meet the legal definitions of stalking or harassment.

But when US News took up the question of whether Weiner’s actions were illegal, they only looked at whether he had used government computers in his sexting and didn’t even raise the issue of whether flashing a stranger online is a form of harassment (source).

Perhaps that’s as good an indicator as any that our society has silently accepted that behaviors that would be considered unacceptable in real life are less so online–although still potentially offensive enough to cost a congressman his seat.

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This post is categorized in: Politics, Social Media

About Brook Ellingwood

I'm a digital polyglot, occasional writer and 2011 graduate of MCDM. I'm the Director of Interactive at KCTS Television, but my opinions are my own.

9 Responses to The Digital Ethics of Weinergate

  1. TWC says:

    You forgot to mention that she deleted her original Twitter account and then started fresh with a new one.

    Reports are she deleted her Facebook account, too.

    That’s either savvy or a sign she’s being deceitful.

    I think it’s established that dropping a crotch shot on strangers is not part of Weiner’s m.o., yet Ms. Cordova was the recipient of one. (And then she said she thought he was confusing her with the porn star?)

    Considering the mood in Washington, if it ever becomes in Obama’s or Pelosi’s interest to have the truth of her involvement in the effort to drive Weiner from office, Ms. Cordova will be in a very difficult position.

    Frankly, truth is the best media strategy during a scandal. Weiner was too afraid to do that – and look how it ended for him.

    Something isn’t adding up about Ms. Cordova’s words and actions.

    I hope I’m wrong.

  2. TWC, I’m not at all interested in debating the truthfulness of Ms. Cordova’s story. Whether she did or didn’t have an existing relationship with Rep. Weiner is beside the point of this post. In order to put her actions in context, it is necessary to acknowledge the version of the story that she is seeking to make the dominant one and that is where the post starts.

    What I am interested in is whether, in an era in which virtually every American has uploaded — or had uploaded on their behalf — numerous artifacts that could be used to portray them in an unflattering light when taken out of context, if Ms. Cordova’s actions are a harbinger of things to come. Promptly deleting as much of one’s social media history as possible strikes me as a reasonable response to getting caught up in a tabloid scandal, regardless of the legitimacy of being associated with it.

  3. Bhodda says:

    Dude, you said “harbinger”

  4. Zanna says:

    Thank you for your post Brook. I like the details about Miss Cordova’s behavior. I didn’t get that anywhere.
    You raised some important ethical and moral issues and I am very interested to see how the society will digest that. I am still wondering if Wiener will keep his position.

  5. Pingback: Not as simple as it seems: Media grapple with congressional indiscretion | Center for Journalism Ethics

  6. akw says:

    “But even in the absence of evidence of a relationship, the story is frequently being reported as though Cordova and Weiner had been having an ongoing virtual affair, as in this quote from Time magazine: “…it had been intended for viewing only by a woman in Seattle with whom he’d developed an online relationship.”

    Absence of evidence of a relationship? Are you serious? That means that you think that Weiner sent a photo of himself in boxers with an erection to someone he had no online relationship with. Even as a “joke” that isn’t plausible. There is no way he sent that photo to Cordova unless he felt sure receiving his sexual photo would be ok with her. Weiner had already used that photo in an online sexual relationship with another woman. It was part of his repertoire in his multiple online/sexting relationships, just like his “caped crusader” schtick.

  7. akw says:

    This exchange with the GA woman says it all, about the women in this mess and Weiner:

    Traci Nobles, May 5….“i cant stop thinking about you, I’m touching myself as we speak, i want you (censored, describes a sex act), i need to see you mr. congressman, please don’t disappoint me!”

    Weiner, May 6…“Please understand i am a very important man. I’m always busy, but I promise i will make time for you soon! Don’t the pictures i send keep you satisfied?”


    Weiner, May 7…“So i will make sure to keep some time open so we can have a cyber session via skype. Does that make my hot sexy baby happy?”

    Yes, he actually said “I’m a very important man.” No LoL or haha after it, either. Weiner had more than 40,000 people following him. He followed fewer than 200. Of those 200, many were young women. He used their admiration for his power and his liberal ideals to prey on the ones he thought would be receptive to having online sexual affairs with him. It didn’t matter whether they were 40 or 17.

    There was actually a group of conservatives that initially followed Weiner’s twitter feed for political reasons. Then, they realized what he was doing with the women, and they started warning the women and letting Weiner know that they were on to him. He STILL didn’t quit. It was that group that saw him send the boxer photo to Cordova and took the story to Breitbart.

    While I agree that there are a lot of foolish people who post things online or through texting that could come back to haunt them, that is far different than what Weiner was doing. Weiner was using his political position to prey on women who were enamored with his “power.” I’m not exonerating the women, but they’re not US Representatives.

  8. LSS says:

    Great piece, glad to see some thoughtful commentary on the aspects that actual matter!

    “There is no way he sent that photo to Cordova unless he felt sure receiving his sexual photo would be ok with her.”

    AKW, you’re thinking like a normal person. This guy’s a narcissist with a reckless streak. If he’s subconsciously determined to self destruct, this was a great way to go about it. If not, still he might no longer be getting his gratification with the consensual activities. Maybe he needed to up the ante, to get a rush. The “joke” was a cover if she ended up not being receptive. You have to accept he may not be thinking like you are thinking. He may genuinely be compelled to do it–against all rational judgment–in which case the normal rules don’t apply, because he’s basically operating under delusions of grandeur at a bare minimum.

    I too have admired Cordova’s handling of the situation, she is obviously a smart cookie. I do find some things hard to reconcile but maybe I’ve just been reading too many blogs. Still inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt, simply because it doesn’t matter if there was more to their relationship since she is 21, and I seriously doubt he did anything pervy with the high school girls; we already know he’s a creep regardless.

  9. Wired has published a very interesting analysis of how Twitter’s foundational architecture decisions — and Weiner’s failure to understand what they meant for the privacy of his communications — made it very easy for political opponents to surmise a pattern of behavior and then watch his every move until they caught him in the act due to a mistake that most of us who use Twitter have committed as well.

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