Ethan Czahor never even got to Miami. In February, the 31-year old developer became the chief technology officer for Jeb Bush's presidential exploratory committee. He was welcomed with a Time magazine exclusive, reporting on the cute code he'd created to promote a Bush speech, and how he'd cut his teeth on Hipster.com.
Hours later, Czahor got a request for comment on his old tweets. He ignored it–he'd deleted some of them, anyway. "I wasn't hired to do any public social media outreach or any of that," he remembered last week in a conversation with Bloomberg. "It was a purely technical position."
Czahor's benign neglect failed to stop Andrew Kaczynski, a Buzzfeed reporter who toils in the social media salt mines, from finding 45 deleted tweets. They were mostly from 2009 and 2010, and mostly jokes.
"Most people don't know that 'halloween' is German for 'night that girls with low self-esteem dress like sluts," tweeted Czahor then. "I know lindsey lohan is supposed to die soon, but i'd sure like to sleep with her before that happens." And so on.
Czahor wanted to write a mea culpa. He kept starting and scrapping versions of an apology or an explanation. "I very much wanted to speak out, because there was a misunderstanding," he says now. "The things I said–they were jokes. Me and Trevor Noah have a very similar situation here, because I was training with [LA comedy troupe] the Groundlings, and everything I was writing was stuff I was saying around my friends. Around my gay friends. It was a chuckle, it was funny. Everyone's advice was to just let this blow over."
It didn't blow over. One day later, after the Huffington Post dug up Czahor's old blog posts from his days as a campus conservative, he resigned. He declined media interviews, including one from Bloomberg. Czahor only returned, this month, when he had a product designed to save other millennials from his fate. Clear, an app that works as an add-on to Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram, is meant to "make sure situations like mine never happen to anyone ever again."
The free app allows users to scan their social media for a series of problematic terms, an idea that has appeared in speculative fiction from time to time–like the "spider repellant" in Christopher Buckley's Boomsday. A test run of the app, using my Twitter account, found that it was -849.5 percent "clear." This seemed to be bad. At least several times a week, the @daveweigel account had sent out something that the algorithm, backed up by IBM's Watson computer, found dangerous. Some examples:
Here, the problems seemed to be the blasphemy used to discuss Minneapolis's airport, the term "Americans" –which might, for all the computer knew, be modified negatively–and the proper name of an actual South Carolina congressman that doubles as an insult for Irish people.
Among the problems here: A reference to Oregon's senior senator, and the use of terms to discuss the races of different people.
Had I continued with Clear's recommendations, I could have swiped and destroyed any of the offending tweets. That's how it works–Clear scans, but does not judge. Neither does Czahor. When I asked if, say, a neo-Nazi could scrub his accounts to look better for a job interview, Czahor turned the conversation back to the plight of millennials.
"It's always wrong to be intolerant or hateful, no matter what the platform is," he said. "That's wrong. But I believe people have the right to control what they've said. If you're 16, 17, early in your college career, you're not sophisticated enough to know how the world works and what's going to be a problem for you. There are millennials entering the work force who've been on Facebook for 10 years, and they might not even be thinking about how someone can take an old post or thought out of context."
Czahor's not working on a political campaign right now. The most obvious utility of his app, though, might be in protecting other campaigns or campaigners. Not weeks after Czahor went down, Republican strategist Liz Mair spent 24 whirlwind hours as a strategist for Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker. When the Iowa Republican Party attacked some tweets she'd written, mocking the state's early caucus role, Mair walked the plank. It might have been a watershed moment in the backlash against people being done in by social media. But in an interview, Mair said she wouldn't be inclined to use a service like Clear.
"If he developed a tool that was going to scan for spelling and grammar and Twitter handle mistakes, I might use that," she said. "I'm not the kind of person that goes back and deletes old tweets. In my particular case, the stuff that people found offensive wouldn't have even come up. If it had thrown out the term 'government dependent,' maybe it would have. But I did not delete that tweet and won't delete that tweet. I don't consider deleting tweets to be good social media practice."
Mair suggested that Clear might work better on the demand end of the campaign–for employers, wondering whether a new hire might have toxic waste in his social media history. For the moment, Clear requires users to submit their Twitter/Facebook passwords for access, so the decision to clean up accounts is up to them. Ironically, it would not have prevented Czahor himself from being caught out by Buzzfeed, which employed a reporter who knew how to find deleted info. It might make negative information tougher to google or stumble upon, but it would not conceal it from a dogged investigator.
"For most people, this stuff isn't findable by employers because they've already deleted accounts or the stuff is private and not seeable," said Buzzfeed's Kaczynski. "So no, not really worried about this."
At the moment, Clear is not a perfect reputation-saver. Its algorithm works faster than a comb through old social media accounts, but doesn't catch everything. A user might realize that, say, a joke at Iowa's expense could be a career-killer. The app might not. At the moment, it's more of a statement than an app–a statement that the people who grew up in the age of Twitter and Facebook are going to be under more scrutiny than any previous generation, and that employers and mobs might want to consider the implications.
"I knew politics was a 'one strike and you're done' kind of thing," said Czahor. "As soon as this happened I said–well, that's it for me."