© 2012 compassrose_04 courtesy of Flickr

Have you ever posted something hastily on social media, and then deleted it later, after coming into your rational mind? Lots of people do it, and while oftentimes it does the trick, it isn’t a reliable way of removing something once it’s been published on the internet. This is because once something has been “published” on the internet, there’s no way to prevent it from being copied—by anyone, anywhere in the world. There are even sites, like archive.org, a.k.a. the “Wayback Machine,” specifically designed to take snapshots of everything that appears on the web, not to mention the countless bots and spiders programmed to methodically scan or “crawl” through web pages in search of specific data or classes of data, and then create an index of the data discovered.

That’s why I tell all my clients not to post anything on the internet, which they wouldn’t want their mother/father/boss/significant other to see. But what about in closed forums, such as your “private” Instagram account, or Facebook wall? Even thought these places aren’t accessible to the general public, you are still distributing information to an outside network, which is ultimately controlled by someone else, and once it’s out there, it’s possible that people other than your friends could see it—even if you delete it.

There’s a bunch of reasons Facebook might want to make it less easy for users to hide their history on the website; old posts are almost certainly used in its advertising algorithms and are used to fuel “Memories” posts which generate additional engagement.

When you delete something from your wall, account, or even your personal computer folder, it may disappear from plain view, but that doesn’t mean it never happened (i.e. can’t be discovered using sophisticated software or methods). For example, whenever you delete a tweet or a Facebook post, it gets removed from your timeline, but the data is still retained, because they consider deleted posts to contain valuable marketing data. Recently, Facebook was even accused of removing the option to delete posts. Although that didn’t actually happen, the mere thought of its ramifications caused agita for more than a few. But even if you could totally delete something from the internet, there’s no way to guarantee it wasn’t captured before you deleted it (remember this poor girl?).

Here’s the other scary thing about deleting data: if you delete anything that’s related a lawsuit—even if there isn’t a lawsuit yet, but you think there might be one in the future—you’re required to preserve that data, and if you delete it, it’s the same as destroying evidence, which can result in huge penalties, depending on the substance and circumstances of the data in question. The best thing you can do is to think twice before you post anything on the internet, especially if what you’re posting is about somebody else.

Further reading: No, Facebook Didn’t Remove the Ability to Delete Posts—But It Did Hide It From Some Users