From fame to infamy on social media

Rebekah Page-Gourley

By now you have probably heard a lot of stories about people’s foolish uses of social media getting them into legal hot water — or maybe you’ve even experienced it in one of your own cases.

A plaintiff claims to be severely injured but posts pictures of a ski trip on Facebook. A man seeks custody of his kids but creates a profile stating that he’s childless on Match.com. A woman claims that her fiancé accidentally drowned during a kayaking trip, but she fills her Facebook page in the days following with cat photos and cheery quotes. A brilliant criminal mastermind likes his own America’s Most Wanted photo on Facebook and then gets arrested.

These are, of course, extreme (and fairly straightforward) examples of what not to do publicly on the Internet. But it’s not always so cut and dried. Sometimes what starts out as good press can lead to questions and shame before your 15 minutes run out.

Take the recent story of Boston Marathon runner Mike Rossi, who, with the help of social media, went from “dad of the year” to the subject of a cheating scandal in a matter of days.

Rossi, a dad from Pennsylvania, took his two children out of school for three days so they could watch him run the 2015 Boston Marathon. The principal let Rossi know that the kids’ absences would be unexcused under school policy.

Rossi responded by posting a letter on his public Facebook page rebuking the principal and stating in part: “While I appreciate your concern for our children’s education, I can promise you they learned as much in the five days we were in Boston as they would in an entire year in school.”

But Rossi didn’t stop there. When his post went viral, he did interviews about the experience, describing how important the time in Boston was for his family. Pictures of Rossi running various races started floating around the Web, and some people hailed his gumption and creative parenting.

But Rossi’s Internet fame and accolades started to pique the interest of some sleuths on several online running forums. Specifically, Rossi’s finish time in his Boston qualifier (the 2014 Lehigh Valley Health Network Via Marathon) was suspiciously fast and not in line with any of his previous races or his 2015 Boston finish.

This discovery led to public scrutiny of his Facebook posts, race photos (or lack thereof), and other activities on social media, all of which fueled the speculation that Rossi cut the course at the Via Marathon. (You’d think that the modern additions of chip timing, online digital race photography and social media would have made cheating in road races almost impossible, but people do still try.)

Rossi took down his public Facebook page (though people got screen shots before he did so), got a lawyer, and discussed taking legal action against those making accusations. Despite his denial of any wrongdoing, there was an investigation of Rossi’s Via Marathon race. The Via Marathon ultimately decided not to disqualify Rossi, citing lack of “conclusive evidence” that his time was inaccurate. But many in the running community are not satisfied, and the cloud of suspicion still hovers. If and when Rossi runs his next marathon, runners near and far will bring popcorn and settle in for the show.

Internet celebrity cuts both ways. The viral capabilities of social media can bring you recognition and accolades but can also lead to the added scrutiny that comes from such exposure. If you put yourself out there, you have to know that you’re opening every door and window into the house of your life — so it better be clean.

Rebekah Page-Gourley is a staff attorney at the Institute of Continuing Legal Education in Ann Arbor. This commentary originally appeared as a blog post in the ICLE Community and is reprinted with permission.
 

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