When I look back over my work at ClearanceJobs, there’s a clear and interesting trend that began, years back, “Hey, social media is great and we might want to be cautious about what we post because you never know if the government might one day use it when adjudicating a clearance.” Later, I received a lot of push-back from members of the community when I stated very directly: “Your social media history will be used against you.” And now, as we have seen, “Your social media history has been used against you.” It’s only going to get worse from here.
And look, this is not necessarily a bad thing. In a book I co-authored in 2014, we presented examples of possible foreign agents successfully connecting with senior military officials and political appointees in the national security field. Social media was still wild and woolly in those days, and it wasn’t so much a lapse of judgement on the part of those officials as it was a naivety in the nature of social. We’ve come a long way since then, and it’s clear that such men and women have been far more cautious in who they follow and whose posts they share.
Concomitant with influencing U.S. leadership, foreign intelligence has been hard at work influencing the U.S. body politic. It is a stunning one-two punch: subtly shaping the thinking of officials, and then the thinking of voters, who can install ever-more-compromised candidates. In the aftermath of the 2016 election, Facebook went into full denial mode that the Russians had in any way infiltrated, if not the technical back-end of its network, then certainly its membership, ungluing the understood social underpinning of the service. It has since been revealed that Facebook knew about its infiltration with absolute metaphysical certitude, and did nothing. Twitter, meanwhile, has always known, and has simply taken a stance that amounts to, “Well, yeah, sure the Russian bots are here, but whaddaya gonna do, you know?”
Twitter has always been something of a grim cesspool of crackpot conspiracy theories and targeted harassment now known to have been directed, hatched, and promulgated by foreign intelligence agencies. And these psychological operations are stunningly well executed. Facebook operations have been more insidious yet, with foreign agents actually creating seemingly benign Facebook groups, attracting members, and mobilizing them to political action. The idea has not been to recruit agents, but to sow discontent among Americans. Though destructive to the domestic tranquility and social cohesion in the United States, its sheer brilliance in execution had led me sometimes to think darkly along the lines of General Turgidson in the film Dr. Strangelove: “Gee, I wish we had one of them doomsday machines.”
(To be clear, I do not think the Russians really care who wins and who loses in these online “debates.” This isn’t a Republican or Democratic thing; Russia wants only discontent, and will gladly glom on to any cause or candidate whose very presence in the national discourse can confuse or cause chaos.)
Amid all this: the paranoia now found online, the conspiracy theories, the distrust, the compromised leadership, the blurring of lines between legitimate news sources and those on the Russian payroll—social media has now become not only a cause for a negative adjudication, but has been, in fact, weaponized and used to stifle political dissent. The most prominent example of this is former director of the Central Intelligence Agency, John Brennan, whose caustic comments on the president led directly to the loss of his security clearance. And once you go down that road, any critic or threat to a president in any capacity is grounds for a clearance removal. Robert Mueller is another name frequently mentioned as likely to see his security clearance vanish. Time will tell whether that happens.
CLEANING UP YOUR ACT
So what does this matter to you? You’re not investigating the president! You’re no threat to anyone in power! What should at least cause some worry is that these sorts of things always filter down. (This year, every good manager in government and industry has likely told his or her cleared subordinates to avoid posting things political online… because you just never know.) My advice to every reader of this column is to either delete your social media account, or to scrub it deeply.
Deleting your account on any platform is relatively straightforward. Here is how to do it for Facebook and Twitter—the places most likely to cause you trouble down the road. Instagram, though wildly popular, is, in my experience, apolitical. (It’s hard to get into a debate over foreign policy when someone posts a photograph of latte art or kittens being cute.)
HOW TO CLEAN UP YOUR TWITTER ACCOUNT
If you wish to stay on Twitter, but need to clean your account, the best free tool I have found for Twitter is called TweetDelete. You sign up, link your account, and are presented with two options:
- You can delete your entire history. My account had been around for eleven years, and I had posted tens of thousands of tweets and retweets. The deletion process took several days. (It was automated: I told it to zap my history, and each day I saw my tweet count diminish, until at last I had a clean slate.)
- You can tell TweetDelete to delete everything up to a certain point in time. For example: You can tell it to delete everything older than 30 days. I especially liked this option, because the only people looking back several years into your post history are likely looking for ammunition against you.
TweetDelete remains active as long as you let it, so all you have to do is say “30 days” (or one week, or whatever length of time you choose), and it will always keep your account clean beyond that point. This way you get the feeling of interaction with other users, you have some history to prove that you’re not a newbie, you can sustain a conversation of reasonable length, but you never have to worry about some bad interaction or inadvertently negative post coming back to haunt you.
HOW TO CLEAN UP YOUR FACEBOOK ACCOUNT
Facebook makes things a bit more difficult. You have multiple options: You can simply lock down the sorts of things that are publicly facing (this might be your easiest option), or you can give your account a deep scrubbing through a Google Chrome extension. Unlike Twitter, I’ve found no tool that allows you to auto-delete your history beyond x-number of days. Once your account is clean, you’re going to have to practice some self discipline in what you post thereafter.
All of this is a lot of work, and easy to put off simply because it’s something we don’t often think about. But I would argue that it is extremely important. You need to delete those old tweets and posts if for no other reason than because your job might depend on it. And going forward, if you hold a clearance (or hope eventually to hold one), avoid the political, and watch who you follow or retweet. Social media used to be a fun place to meet virtually with friends. Today, it is serious business. A little vigilance goes a long way.