How to Deal With Posting Something You Regret

Photo: laflor/Getty Images

TThe smart-ass tweet. The intemperate blog post. The video rant. The indiscreet selfie. If you’ve been online for more than five minutes, then the odds are good that at some point, you’ve posted something you now regret.

But now, of course, that regrettable post is part of your permanent digital footprint, and undoing the damage isn’t as simple as just hitting delete.

So how do you apologize, or otherwise clean up your own mess?

Wait, do you really need to apologize?

Just because some people are angry at you online doesn’t necessarily mean you’ve done something wrong. Sometimes online outrage is simply a reflection of digital mob mentality: The people you’ve angered are people who hated you already, even if they didn’t know they hated you. When the feminist writer Anita Sarkeesian produced a series of videos critiquing misogyny in video games, she became the target of the vicious, violent backlash that ultimately became known as Gamergate. But that reaction merely underlined the validity of Sarkeesian’s critique.

But sometimes, people’s anger really is a result of insensitivity on your part. One recent example: The TV star Gina Rodriguez’s Instagram video in which she sang along to a song that included the N-word. People were upset and offended, and their responses were useful signals that Rodriguez ought to think more carefully about her actions.

It’s not always easy to see if an apology is warranted when you’re at the the center of a social media firestorm, and it can be just as challenging to think straight when a half-dozen “friends” are piling on in the comments thread on your latest Insta post. A good test is to think about how you’ll feel when you look back on this post in five or 10 years: Will you feel better if your response shows you standing firm, or if it shows you reconsidering and acknowledging error or insensitivity?

How to say sorry

If you decide that an apology is warranted, fight the temptation to explain the reasoning behind your original offense. It almost always ends up reading as self-justification or defensiveness rather than an actual mea culpa. When the YouTube star PewDiePie responded to a Wall Street Journal story enumerating multiple instances of racism and anti-Semitism in his videos, his so-called apology included complaints about his “jokes” being taken out of context, resulting in an even bigger wave of criticism.

The same dynamic can unfold on a smaller scale if you try to handle critical comments by explaining or qualifying your original statement. Instead, show that you understand the hurtful impact of your post. That means doing your homework by learning a bit more about the way in which you’ve erred. If your friends are telling you that your video was insensitive to intellectually disabled people, or your Facebook post is dismissive of the challenges that trans people face, read up on the historical challenges of those communities. You’ll be a lot more likely to post a genuinely thoughtful, sensitive reply if you understand why you’ve upset other people.

How to quiet your post

Even if you delete the offending post, know that it’s just about impossible to make anything really disappear online: Between screenshots, the Wayback Machine, and features like Twitter’s archive, you never know how something can resurface.

And deleting isn’t necessarily the right answer, anyway. If your transgression has already attracted online attention, trying to erase the evidence can make you look sketchy. What’s more, deleting your offense, rather than actually addressing it, costs you the opportunity to make amends, and prevents other people from learning from your mistakes.

Instead, clearly tie your apology to the original content. If it was a bad tweet, post the apology as a reply, or as a comment on a retweet. If it was a Facebook post, edit it to put the apology at the top.

Once you’ve posted your warranted, sincere, and considered apology, you can take measures to make your original offense less visible: After all, there’s no benefit to spreading the hurt even more widely. If you’re apologizing for a blog post, you could add a noindex tag to the hidden code in your blog post, which in theory will remove it from search results (though there’s no guarantee it won’t pop-up in some other way). If you’re apologizing for something you posted on a social media platform that allows you to edit, rather than just delete, existing posts (like Facebook), you can remove any hashtags that made your original post more visible elsewhere on the site. If it’s on a site where the only option is deletion (like Twitter), you might want to post a whole bunch of new updates to push the regretted item further down your page or profile.

Whatever you do, don’t let your regretted post keep you from participating in online conversations. Whenever I get in hot water — something that seems to happen every year or two — I hear from friends or colleagues who tell me that the experience of online roasting has cowed them into silence. It’s understandable, but it’s also a mistake. Letting only the loudest, angriest voices participate in the conversation? Now that is a real cause for regret.

Author, Remote Inc: How To Thrive at Work…Wherever You Are. Tech speaker. Writer & data journalist for Wall Street Journal, Harvard Business Review & more.

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