Editor’s Note: Peggy Drexler is a research psychologist and the author of “Our Fathers, Ourselves: Daughters, Fathers, and the Changing American Family” and “Raising Boys Without Men.” She is at work on a book about how women are conditioned to compete with one another and what to do about it. The opinions expressed in this commentary are hers. View more opinion on CNN.
What happens in the cloud doesn’t necessarily stay in the cloud — a lesson that actress Bella Thorne has learned the hard way. On Saturday, Thorne, who is 21, shared explicit pictures of herself on Twitter, explaining that “for the last 24 hours I have been threatened with my own nudes,” and that she had decided to share them preemptively because “it’s MY DECISION NOW U DON’T GET TO TAKE YET ANOTHER THING FROM ME. I can sleep tonight better knowing I took my power back.”
She wrote this in a note on Twitter, next to screenshots of text message conversations with the alleged hacker, who said he had pictures and videos of her.
It’s debatable whether Thorne did, in fact, reclaim her power by sharing these private photos under the allegedly coerced circumstances. Monday morning on The View, Whoopi Goldberg expressed frustration at the naivete she perceived in Thorne’s shock that this was happening to her at all.
“If you’re famous, I don’t care how old you are. You don’t take nude pictures of yourself,” Goldberg asserted. “Once you take that picture it goes into the cloud and it’s available to any hacker who wants it, and if you don’t know that in 2019 that this is an issue, I’m sorry. You don’t get to do that.”
Whoopi’s comments, although condemned by many as victim-blaming, are valid. As a society, we have for many years now been sold a false sense of security about our online interactions. Online privacy remains a particularly difficult concept, it seems, for younger generations to accept. Consider 18-year-old student Kyle Kashuv, who survived the Parkland shooting last year.
He was recently accepted to Harvard, but this week announced that the university had rescinded his acceptance. When he was 16 he made racist comments, revealed in a video that was posted online by a former classmate last month.
Kashuv has said, “I wish I could take it back.” But, well, he can’t.
We’ve heard these stories again, and again, and again. Some people have called this the “Privacy Paradox” of the Internet: We know that our data is being used for things we don’t understand, and that our words and images exchanged in private or public online interactions can be used against us. And yet we continue to share anyway, making comments and sending pictures we wouldn’t want exposed, and giving away our data to unknown entities for the convenience of whatever app we want to use. Why else would a bunch of St. Louis cops allegedly post racist comments online?
The internet is such an intrinsic part of modern life that it’s somewhat unreasonable to ask any one individual to make consistently “rational” choices, certainly. What’s more, while you’d think younger generations – steeped now in daily news reports of online security breaches and onrushing government regulations of their social media platforms – are more cognizant of the internet’s pitfalls than older, less tech-savvy generations.
But young people are still just young. They do and say regrettable things, and the internet is their go-to platform for expression.
It’s essential that we hammer away at this – that we, and they, understand that the internet is not a diary; it is not private. It’s unspeakably wrong to use racial slurs, and perhaps slightly deluded to share nude pictures – especially as a famous person – without ever considering that they might get out.
But in a world in which nothing is private, and everything can be used against you, forever, we should all think seriously about how much blame should be placed on individuals, and how much on a system that sells us the lie of privacy.