Like hell: how one click became incriminating

On Twitter and Facebook, actions now speak louder than words.

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The Facebook like button was first launched on 9 February 2009 – and by December, Daniel Ray Carter Jr. had been fired for using it.

Carter was an employee of the sheriff’s department in Hampton, Virginia where he worked under sheriff BJ Roberts. In 2009, Roberts ran for re-election against an opponent, Jim Adams, and Carter clicked a button that led to a sudden firing and years of lenghty court cases. Carter clicked like on the Facebook page “Jim Adams For Hampton Sherriff”.

When Roberts was re-elected Carter was immediately fired for – he believes – supporting Adams. In this instance, Carter’s like clearly indicated support (whether this support should have been protected by freedom of speech laws is another, longer, issue). But what does a like really mean?

A survey undertaken by the New Statesman in January found that people don’t click like just because they actually like something. People use the like button to bookmark things, be passive aggressive, or simply stop a conversation. Over 60 percent of people have liked something just because they were asked.

This matters because Carter isn’t alone. In 2017, numerous people have got into trouble for liking things on social media. In May, a Swiss man was fined for liking defamatory Facebook comments and in July, a lawyer planned to use Donald Trump Jr.’s liked tweets as evidence that he violated federal election law.

This year headlines were also made when: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain liked a tweet suggesting Arsene Wegner should stand down; Jeremy Clarkson liked videos of porn; the Thames Valley Police liked a sexist joke; MP Naz Shah liked a parody tweet telling Rotherham abuse victims to “shut their mouths”; Jason Manford liked pornographic photos; Anna Farris liked a tweet about divorce a week before announcing her split with Chris Pratt; Republican Shak Hill liked a tweet from @TotalOrgy; Melania Trump liked a tweet that stated there was a “wall” between herself and her husband; X Factor winner Sam Smith liked a tweet insulting KPop music; and Donald Trump liked two separate tweets stating that he was involved in sex trafficking and was “not presidential material”. 

We are often warned to think about what we say on social media. Yet in 2017, actions speak louder than words.

Most of these news stories include almost-obligatory lines stating that the accused’s thumb might have accidentally slipped and we-can’t-really-know-their-intent – but the fact is they’re still news stories. What we like now comes under as much scrutiny as what we post or share, and digital detectives are ready to dive into the likes of celebrities and politicians for incriminating clues. Perhaps this is fair enough (we live in an age where the leader of the free world announces arms deals via Twitter) but it seems worrying when you consider that we all use the like button in different ways.

In the early days of Twitter, bios often featured some variation of “Retweets do not equal endorsements” – a saying that is now considered cringingly outdated. Is “Likes ≠ endorsements” now a necessarily embarrassing update? Or are politicians like Trump simply getting what they deserve for carelesness? Are endless headlines simply like for like? 

Amelia Tait is a freelance journalist, and was previously the New Statesman's tech and digital culture writer. She tweets at @ameliargh

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