NOVAK: Despite offensive tweets, Wes Bellamy deserves a break

Many people change as they use social media platforms

On Thanksgiving, a blogger unearthed old tweets from the account of Vice Mayor Wes Bellamy in a post on his website. In his post, the blogger criticized the content of Bellamy’s old tweets, a few of which contained offensive and inappropriate language. In light of the discovery of these tweets, calls for Bellamy’s resignation have begun to surface. In response to this pressure, Bellamy has apologized and expressed sincere regret for his words, while qualifying the apology with the acknowledgement that he has matured since posting the tweets. He has since resigned from the Virginia Board of Education. Although many of the statements and language in the old tweets are indefensible, the situation itself serves as a launching point for an important broader discussion about the lengths to which we should hold each other, especially public figures, accountable for past online posts.

The vast majority of Americans with regular Internet access have at least one social media account. Users share a wide variety of different information on these various platforms, including images, videos, text and more. For a lot of people, social media is a way of documenting their lives, with years of online activity all stored on various platforms. While this can serve to satiate the nostalgic cravings of some, it can also have more sinister implications. Every person grows, matures and changes over the course of his life, adjusting and developing new opinions, mannerisms and styles of expression.

For the first time in history, however, thanks to social media, there is a permanent record of activity stored online, much of it available for everyone to see. Even deleting old posts from your feed can be ineffective. This can be particularly unfortunate for individuals who feel as though they have changed for the better over the last couple of years, only to be haunted by online posts of years past.

Even more concerning is the number of children and young adults who participate in social media. Some studies have shown over half of children under 16 use some form of social media. This becomes an issue when children and teens, oftentimes lacking in maturity, experience and cognitive function, express themselves online without fully considering the future consequences of their posts. The ease of expression and speed of dissemination, combined with the persistent nature of online posts can be dangerous for those who post impulsively, or those who have since changed their opinions or styles of communication. Before, it was safe for kids to occasionally make mistakes and be wrong, and generally follow the winding path of maturation. Nowadays however, there exists the possibility that some online mistake from the past may resurface and have negative consequences. As the social media generation continues to age, the catalog will only get more and more extensive, opening up further opportunities for past online activity to haunt people.

Above all, it’s important to look at past posts on social media with empathy. It’s safe to say most people would not still defend every single post they have ever made on social media in the last half decade or so. I know the vast majority of people would not want to be judged based on their 2011 Facebook wall. It’s unfair to judge someone solely on their online persona from half a decade ago. That’s not to say that everyone should just get a free pass for flying off the handle or acting extremely inappropriately online. We should be more holistic in our judgments, and take into account the continuous maturation and development of an individual’s personality. It’s okay to make mistakes online, just as it’s okay to make mistakes in person, so long as we move forward as individuals. We must express sincere remorse for our more unfortunate words and actions, and display grace and maturity as we continue to grow. We should hold people accountable for what they have said online, to an extent, all the while with the understanding that nobody is perfect, and nobody is entirely proud of everything about their past selves.

When it comes to Bellamy, the same metric should be applied. Judgments regarding his character should not be based solely on his old tweets from years ago. By taking responsibility for his past actions and resigning, he has made an important gesture, offering some measure of atonement for his mistakes. It’s important to keep in mind that he, like anyone else, is capable of significant personal growth. As we all do, he deserves the benefit of the doubt.

Brendan Novak is an Opinion columnist for The Cavalier Daily. He may be reached at

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