Watch what you text

By Karl Henkel


The term is more common at a childhood playground than in a professional political spat.

Yet “fatty” and “LOSER” were David Betras’ words of choice in a heated text exchange with Mahoning County commissioner candidate Richard “Oz” Ouzounian.

That private text exchange is now part of the public stage as an outraged Ouzounian distributed them to the media, and Betras apologized.

Betras, a household name locally as an attorney and Mahoning County Democratic Party chairman, joins other household names — whether they are athletes, celebrities or politicians — who have had questionable private messages go public.

Add to text messages the commonplace occurrences of testy Facebook conversations, flippant Twitter comments, digital voicemails and emails, and it’s apparent no conversation is completely private.

But one specialist suggests the technology, in a sense, makes us more bold.

Patrick J. Bateman, assistant professor of information systems at Youngstown State University’s Williamson College of Business, said salty messages such as those from Betras are not surprising.

“The technology creates a feeling of intimacy,” he said. “You have this psychological boundary you’ve created.”

Text messages “are easy to replicate, save, search and disseminate,” he added.

The text-message scandals are nothing new, and Betras’ messages weren’t even the most offensive printed in Wednesday’s Vindicator.

“I just received my Obama stimulus package. It was 3 pieces of chicken, a pack of kool-aid and a dime bag. Did you get yours?” was a text from the phone records of Bret Hartup, an assistant city prosecutor. It came to light as evidence in a discrimination lawsuit against the city. The records are unclear who wrote the text, but opponents of Youngstown Prosecutor Jay Macejko, who’s running for county attorney, allege he is the author. He denies it.

Bateman says in this situation he was surprised by the actual comment, and not the fact it came from a text message.

“Why is an official communicating that in any form to somebody?” he asked. “How is everyone OK with that? It has nothing to do with being released in a text message.”

Even if the sender had recognized his mistake and later deleted the offensive message, that text is not destroyed permanently.

Only a phone company can do that in most cases.

“We do hold onto messages for a short period of time, and they are available if law enforcement has a reason to access that information,” said Laura Merritt, a regional spokeswoman for Verizon Wireless, who said customers do not have access to view text messages no longer stored in their phones. “We don’t divulge that period of time, but it’s not forever.”

Don’t believe it? Just ask former Detroit Mayor Kwame Kilpatrick, whose sexually charged text messages between him and a former staffer led to the unraveling of Kilpatrick’s political career.

The risks in this new technology era surpass text messages.

Last September, amid tense contract talks, a faculty committee distributed by email a four-page report called “Use Your Own Sense of Justice and Fairness.” The report encouraged faculty to withhold participation in meetings and abstain from additional work.

The email was supposed to stay faculty-only, but it quickly became public. A university spokesman said at the time it was “unfortunate” that union leadership would send out such a letter.

Last February, state Rep. Robert F. Hagan of Youngstown, D-60th, in a heated Facebook exchange, unleashed the term “Buckwheat” on an Ohio woman’s status update. As a black person was part of the multiperson exchange, it was deemed racial. But the comment appeared to be in response to a white person’s comment, not the black person’s. The next day, Hagan said the post was not racist and that “Buckwheat” is a term he’s used for years. It still has life on the Internet, though.

Bateman said anyone using text messaging or social media should tread lightly to avoid a Hagan-like situation.

“My rule is, don’t say something using electronic media unless you’re sure that message is OK to come out some other way at some point in time.”

In the aftermath of “fatty,” Betras has created his own new rule.

“Don’t text when you’re mad,” he said. “People are going to say mean things about me, and I can’t respond to that. I just gotta have a thicker hide.”

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