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Posted at 04:25 PM ET, 05/31/2011

Weinergate — Anthony Weiner’s Twitter image problem

I never thought I would spend my Tuesday afternoon squinting at an obscene image of grey Hanes boxers trying to decide if I thought their occupant looked like a part of Anthony Weiner. But there are many things about my present life that I did not visualize.

This is a family newspaper, so I can only tell you that the trouser weasel resident in the aforementioned boxers seemed to be fairly alert.

It’s called “Weinergate.” It began Friday night, when Andrew Breitbart’s blog Big Government posted that Rep. Anthony Weiner (D-N.Y.) had tweeted a lewd image of his underwear-clad crotch to a 21-year-old college student.

The tweet was deleted. The college student, who had tweeted, “I wonder what my boyfriend @RepWeiner is up to right now” and received, in response, the offensive picture, deleted her account and told the New York Daily News that she’d been harassed by conservative tweeters before the photo was sent. Weiner stated that his account had been hacked. Since the first person to retweet the picture had been claiming for days that a sex scandal of Chris-Lee-esque proportions was about to fall and smite the Democratic party, this didn’t seem entirely incredible.

But Breitbart is sticking by the story, and the one person to screencap and post the picture is insisting he had nothing to do with it and is begging us to test his IP address.

Breitbart sometimes tends to be confused about the meaning of making news. So it’s one word against the other — the recipient refuses to confirm or deny the hacking theory — and his word, so far, has not been stellar.

But I’m sort of curious as to why Weiner was tweeting about Seattle right before the picture was sent. And of the 200 people @RepWeiner follows on Twitter, a surprising number (well, more than zero, at any rate) do seem to be what might be termed nubile out-of-state houris.

While we wait for more information, we have dozens of years of pent-up pun energy waiting to explode. “Weiner!” we exclaim. The junior congressman gets enough flak without this! This was really hitting below the belt.

Now Weiner is retaining a lawyer and is begging us to talk about something more serious. Anything. Hockey! So is the college student to whom the Twitter message was directed, noting to the New York Daily News that “my reputation has been called into question by those who lack the character to report the facts.”

But reputation is the key word of this mini-drama.

Say what you will about Weiner (and I’ve said some), he has a definite style. @RepWeiner has always had a little more pizazz than your average member of Congress on Twitter. He is intense, yes, colorful, yes, and young enough to “get it.” He is the sort of figure, like Jon Stewart, who inspires random college students to refer to him as their boyfriend, delivering sarcastic tirades on the house floor and yelling on Fox News.

So the crotch shot seems entirely too ham-fisted. It’s the sort of thing you’d expect from someone who didn’t send his own tweets. Anyone who uses that many hashtags clearly knows what happens when you post compromising images online.

Or maybe not. Since he’s lawyering up and the “prank” furor hasn’t died down, it’s hard to say.

This has been quite the week for hacking. PBS was hacked, with reports that Tupac Shakur was alive and well and living in New Zealand. This weekend, Lockheed Martin also fell under attack. And Sony is still reeling from the attack on its Playstation network.

The other forms of hacking raise questions of information security and even physical safety. But this one (assuming it was a hack) touches on something more subtle: reputation security.

In Shakespeare’s “Othello,” Cassio keens, “Reputation, reputation, reputation! O, I have lost my reputation! I have lost the immortal part of myself, and what remains is bestial.”

People used to have reputations. Now they just have Generally Inoffensive Twitter Feeds. Replace “Carefully Cultivated Online Presence” with Reputation, and you’ve got Weiner’s trouble in a nutshell. It’s not what you’ve done but what comes up when we Google you that counts — as Rick Santorum has been learning.

Cassio knew, as Weiner seems to, that reputation has a tangible existence outside the self, and once it’s dented, just try to keep Google from suggesting “trouser weasel” after your name. Do you remember that one evening in college? No? Well, Facebook does. Long after the sun has exploded and we have passed into the arms of the ancient Mayans, those photos we forgot to untag will linger to bear witness to our misdeeds. It’s the immortal part of ourselves, and what remains is — suing.

And supposing it was an indiscretion and not a hack, it’s an easy mistake to make. Our actual selves are so bound up in our online selves that it’s sometimes hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. Defriending on Facebook is a personal insult. Posing shirtless on Craigslist? Sending lascivious direct messages? You’ll have to answer for those. We are held accountable in the real world for the things we do in the virtual one. We’re existing in a new dimension, and it’s no longer truly anonymous and free of consequences.

Before, people had to have real scandals. Now all they have to do is post trouser photos to the Internet.

Curiosity used to kill the cat. These days, it launches the reality TV career of whatever the cat was last looking at. There was a time when we only heard about indiscretions. Now, if you’re at all curious, you can see what all that Brett Favre fuss is about (not much), or read Tiger Woods’s text messages or glimpse Chris Lee’s Craigslist photos.

If this was a prank, whoever planned it had the formula — and the forum — down pat. This is where scandals are made — not face to face, but Facebook to Facebook.

Who cares whose shorts those were?

Whose IP address was it?

By  |  04:25 PM ET, 05/31/2011

Tags:  Anthony Weiner, weinergate, Twitter

 
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