News Column

Petraeus Scandal Just More Evidence of Online Stupidity

Nov. 19, 2012

Virginia Rohan

Why do smart people sometimes do such head-scratchingly stupid things online?

Ex-CIA Chief David Petraeus is probably pondering that question these days. Lots of other Americans certainly are.

How could a retired four-star general have thought that using a private Gmail account, created with an alias, to correspond with his mistress was a good idea? Or that leaving messages for each other in a draft folder or in an electronic "dropbox" would make their exchanges untraceable?

"When I heard it, I was dumbfounded that someone who is supposed to know everything about how to keep us safe ... how he could not have known that what he did was so traceable?" Patricia Lang of Mahwah says. "I can't understand it and it scares me."

The sex scandal that began with news that Petraeus had had an affair with Paula Broadwell, his biographer, did not end with his resignation as CIA director on Nov. 9. By Friday, you needed a scorecard to keep track of the players in this ever-evolving story.

There was also: Jill Kelley, a Tampa socialite who reportedly received "anonymous" harassing emails traced to Broadwell; and Gen. John Allen, the top American and NATO commander in Afghanistan, who had exchanged a reported 30,000 emails (some of them "inappropriate," the Pentagon said) with Kelley.

And this was not the only story of puzzling online behavior. Last Monday, Elmo puppeteer Kevin Clash was also in the news, after a 23- year-old man said that Clash had had a sexual relationship with him when he was underage. Although Clash denied this and the man subsequently recanted (saying, through his lawyer, that the relationship was adult and consensual), Sesame Workshop, which produces "Sesame Street," said, without elaborating, that Clash had exercised "poor judgment" and was disciplined for violating company policy regarding Internet usage.

Let's not forget former Rep. Anthony Weiner, who admitted in 2011 to sending sexually suggestive emails, tweets and images to six women over a three-year period.

What gives?

"In cyber psychology, people talk about perceived privacy, which is how private you think a certain channel of communication is," says John Suler, professor of psychology in Rider University's Science and Technology Center. "The truth is, whatever you put out there in cyberspace, somebody can look at it. ... But people perceive a level of privacy that really isn't there."

Why? "Often, if you're alone in a room, staring at your computer, just the environment that you're in leads you to believe on a maybe unconscious level that 'I'm alone with this person communicating with them,' " says Suler, one of the founders of the 20-year-old, suddenly hot field of cyber psychology, which studies how people behave online.

Professor Janet Sternberg, who teaches communication and media studies at Fordham University, calls the Petraeus email issue complicated.

"First of all, it's increasingly difficult to separate personal and professional life," says Sternberg. "That's true for you, me and people in the public eye."

The author of the new book "Misbehavior in Cyber Places" also believes that as smart phones centralize a number of digital technologies in one device, "it becomes harder to keep track of which thing we're doing. Am I texting right now? Am I tweeting right now?"

Add to that the reality that many of us have multiple email accounts, that email providers like Gmail "give us ginormous mailboxes" so we don't have to bother deleting messages -- and you've got a cyber trail waiting to be explored.

And then there's hubris.

"People in positions of power, especially men, have this illusion that they're invulnerable. And they get away with it for a very long time," Sternberg says.

Of course, there's also the matter of sex and romance, which can make people toss out all inhibitions and common sense.

"I think hormones play a big role in kids and adults doing stupid things online," says Parry Aftab, the Bergen County-based executive director of, an online safety, education and help group. "I also think there's a spontaneity of communications, an impulsiveness of communications, that allows you to reach out and do things before you've thought about whether you should."

One of her organization's Internet safety programs, "Don't Be Stupid," was so named by the Bergen County chapter of Teenangels, an online safety ambassador program, "because they thought that so many of the things that go on online come from people just being stupid."

Since the Petraeus story broke, some of her Teenangels have been scratching their heads.

"They're like, 'Should we go and do a program for the CIA?' " Aftab says. "From the mouths of babes."

Source: (C) 2012 The Record, Bergen County, NJ. via ProQuest Information and Learning Company; All Rights Reserved

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