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NFL superstar Deshaun Watson is now facing allegations from 22 different women of sexual misconduct. What makes the allegations all the more disturbing is how all of them follow the same pattern: Watson reached out to each of the women via Instagram or Snapchat, then used these social media platforms to message them, all before luring them to a location such as a hotel room or local spa, where he attempted to have sexual relations with them. Presumably, Watson browsed through these social media platforms extensively, looking for beautiful women as potential targets. If Watson were not an NFL superstar, he would be called a “sexual predator” or “serial rapist.”
A difficult question for social media
And that’s what makes the task ahead for Snapchat and Instagram so difficult: under the terms of service that they have made publicly available, any “convicted sex offender” is banned from the network entirely. All it takes is a court document or a news website article, and Instagram or Snapchat would be legally obligated to remove Watson from the social media network. Of course, allegations are still just allegations, so the social media companies do have a way out here. They could claim that Watson deserves a fair hearing in the court of law, and once Watson’s high-priced attorneys get involved here, it could be the situation that all 22 cases somehow disappear into the ether. In that regard, Watson wouldn’t actually be a “convicted” sex offender, and would not technically run afoul of the terms of service.
After all, if Instagram decides to kick Watson off the platform right now, wouldn’t they face a huge outcry not only from Houston Texans and Clemson Tigers fans, but also from professional sports fans everywhere? They would claim that Instagram was trying to “cancel” Watson, and public sentiment might turn against the company. Even worse, they might claim that Instagram was “racist” or “white supremacist” in trying to get rid of a beloved Black celebrity athlete. In today’s volatile race environment, who knows what would happen next? Would BLM get involved here, and try to burn down all of Houston?
Social media and sexual predators
Even if Instagram doesn’t end up banning Watson from the platform (even if just temporarily), it’s time for the social media platform to re-think how it deals with sexual predators and sexual offenders. This is especially the case since many teenagers and young adults use the platform, and they may not be aware of just how easy it is for them to be lured into compromising situations. In the case of Watson, his modus operandi appeared to be contacting women about a massage therapist session, and then informing them that he was looking for a specific type of therapy session for his lower abdominal and groin area. Maybe a bit sketchy if you know what to look for, but still, nothing that screams out “sexual misconduct.”
So what exactly could Instagram have done to prevent this in the first place? Maybe it all just comes down to having better social media policies in place from the very beginning. Terms of service banning “convicted sex offenders” is a good starting point, but what about all those “sex offenders” out there who haven’t yet been convicted? And should Instagram ever take the moral high ground and ban someone from their platform, simply out of an abundance of caution?
For social media companies, it could be a case of “better safe than sorry.” For anyone doubting the validity of this maxim, just think back to what happened with star NFL running back Ray Rice a few years ago. Everyone tried to give him the benefit of the doubt, but then a leaked video emerged of Rice punching a woman in the face in a hotel elevator, and it was game over for Rice. Just imagine what would happen if one of those 22 hotels, spas or saunas where Watson liked to seduce women happened to have video footage of the encounter.
Going forward, it’s clear that there is no easy answer to this. If Instagram decides to “cancel” Watson, they could face a huge backlash. And if they don’t decide to ban him, they could also face a huge backlash. That’s why it’s so important to have good policies in place BEFORE disaster strikes, and not be left scrambling like the big social media companies are right now.