The moment was like bit of tragic theater: Milwaukee Brewers pitcher Josh Hader was on the mound at the All-Star Game at Nationals Park. As he pitched, his reputation was being dismantled, piece by piece, by his own vile Twitter history.
Hader tweeted the n-word multiple times seven years ago, when he was 17. One tweet contained an allusion to white power. He tweeted derogatory things about women. Over an eight-month period, Hader appeared to use his Twitter account as a public outlet for some of the worst thoughts in his mind.
“Need a b—- that can f—, cook, clean right,” one now-deleted tweet of his read, but without those dashes. (The tweet’s wording is identical to a line in a song that has a vulgar title.) As the tweet circulated last night, someone replied, “which bible verse is this?” Hader’s Twitter bio referenced a pair of Bible verses, before he deleted his account overnight. They were Luke 1:37 (“nothing will be impossible with God”) and Genesis 27:3 ( “Now then, take your weapons, your quiver and your bow, and go out to the field, and hunt game for me”).
Another tweet of his simply read, “I hate gay people.”
What happened to Hader — or rather, what Hader did to himself — has become a familiar part of online life. For years, we’ve been using the Internet to express our thoughts in a moment, building an online archive of a version of who we are over time. And increasingly, those archives have become ghosts, poised to haunt their creators.
Often, those haunted are the powerful or influential, like Hader. President Trump’s old tweets are often so perfectly juxtaposed with his new ones that “there’s always a tweet” has become a meme. A New Hampshire lawmaker resigned after the Daily Beast connected him to the leadership of a long-running Reddit board devoted to misogyny. Anthony Scaramucci deleted a bunch of tweets that were critical of Trump when he briefly joined the White House team. Trevor Noah came under fire after taking over “The Daily Show” for old, insensitive jokes on his Twitter account.
The consequences can vary: Noah still hosts the show, and Hader will go through sensitivity training, Major League Baseball said in a statement. Hader also apologized after the game to reporters, saying his tweets did not represent what he believes today.
“I was 17 years old. As a child, I was immature. I obviously said some things that were inexcusable. That doesn’t reflect on who I am as a person today. That’s just what it is,” he said.
The same opposition-research-style resurfacing has long been a tool for online harassment. And in those cases, the consequences often are more severe than what happened to Hader.
In 2016, misogynist sleuths wrongly concluded that Allison Rapp, who worked at Nintendo, was responsible for a series of changes in a video game that they disagreed with. They dredged up her undergraduate thesis, Amazon wish list, old tweets and alleged anonymous online accounts on social media in an effort to ruin her life. The mob was successful, in that Rapp lost her job amid the mobbing. In a series of statements at the time, Rapp said Nintendo was influenced by these revelations in determining she wasn’t a good representative of the company — Nintendo officially said that they terminated her employment for moonlighting with a second job they found to be inappropriate.
“The amount of obsession it must take to dig up old tweets, find addresses, link me to anon things not related to games is . . . not normal for a professional industry,” Rapp tweeted at the time.
The mob targeted Rapp because they believed she had a level of power that was not, in fact, hers. And that’s key to understanding how Internet sleuthing can go wrong. When virality can happen in a moment, the lines between private and public figure become blurred. Ken Bone became famous just before the elections for the red sweater he wore during a presidential debate. By the end of the week, his entire Reddit history was being dissected online. When The Washington Post asked Bone whether he’d considered locking down his Reddit history before agreeing to do an Ask Me Anything on the platform about his new fame, Bone replied that it hadn’t even occurred to him. After all, “I’ve only been a person of note for four days.”
Like most things online, the consequences for this online phenomenon often travel faster than the answers to the questions it raises. In 2018, who is a public figure? What responsibility do people bear for the potential harm of their own online past? Can you even really disappear from the Internet at all?
Hader was a teenager at the time of the tweets, but he’s been in the public eye for most of the years between them and the moment they were revealed. As Yahoo noted, one of Hader’s offensive tweets came just two months before he was drafted by the Baltimore Orioles.
There’s another Bible verse that Hader could reference to understand how he created his own downfall: “Their foot will slip in due time,” the Deuteronomy passage that anchors Jonathan Edwards’s famous Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God sermon. The passage refers to God’s capacity for vengeance against human sin. Contained within the idea is the sense of inevitable revelation of wickedness in people. But this is the Internet; the hell over which we are precariously suspended is one we have created for ourselves, held above it by our own hands.