Are you what you tweet? Trevor Noah says no, but controversy goes on

Days before his debut as the new 'Daily Show' host, Trevor Noah is still recovering from a Twitter hullabaloo caused by old posts. Do Internet users have the right to erase their past mistakes?

Jeffrey R. Staab/ CBS via AP
Trevor Noah, left, appears with host Stephen Colbert on "The Late Show" in anticipation of Noah's own debut as host of "The Daily Show," scheduled for this Monday.

Fans of "The Daily Show" are waiting for Monday, September 28 with bated breath: That's the day that late-night South African comedian Trevor Noah, 31, will take the helm of Comedy Central’s wildly popular satirical news show.

Over 16 years, and 21 Emmy awards, former host Jon Stewart transformed the program: no longer seen as "just" humor, it’s now among young viewers’ primary news sources, for better or worse, and a “cultural institution,” as Molly Driscoll wrote in The Christian Science Monitor. So what is Mr. Noah doing to fill those shoes?

Scrutinizing his staff’s social media, for one. In an interview published this week with The New York Times’ Dave Itzkoff, Noah says his employees went through all potential correspondents’ posts on a hunt for anything potentially troublesome, i.e. offensive.

It’s an issue Noah knows all too well. After Mr. Stewart announced his relatively little-known heir last spring, viewers sprang to their laptops to research the next host. Despite performing stand-up around the world, Noah had only appeared on "The Daily Show" three times before suddenly being given the reins. Among fans’ discoveries were several tweets that might be considered sexist or anti-Semitic, such as 

The tongue-lashing began immediately. Some critics weighing in deemed the tweets problematic, while others simply said they weren’t funny. But Noah, Stewart, and Comedy Central firmly supported their choice for a host. Noah should be allowed to “earn your trust and respect, or not,” Stewart urged, “just as I earned your trust and respect, or did not.” 

Amid the “kertuffle,” as Stewart called it, Noah protested that people should pay attention to who he had become, not 140 characters he’d typed years ago. As he tells Mr. Itzkoff,

People go, "Trevor, you should clean your tweets.” I go, I cleaned my life — I tried to grow as a human being. Someone goes, “Yeah, but you wrote this in 2009.” I go, well, thank God I didn’t write it in 2015. That to me is progress.

For activists and reporters who rely on the freedom of information, the Internet’s disinclination to help hide any embarrassing personal tidbits, or full-blown scandals, is a blessing. But for privacy advocates, or all those who feel misrepresented or humiliated when they Google their names, it can be a curse, no matter how much “progress,” as Noah calls it, they’ve made since.

But perhaps not for long. Thanks to a European court case, "A huge and unwieldy eraser is coming for Google results across the globe,” warns New York Times writer Farhad Majoo

Last year, the Court of Justice of the European Union forced Google to let private Internet users request that certain links to their name be removed if no longer accurate or relevant: subjective criteria indeed for the so-called “right to be forgotten." Although freedom of information champions decried the tool as censorship, a Guardian investigation revealed that 95 percent of requests do come from individuals, rather than powerful people or institutions. The law doesn’t erase websites, merely the link appearing when a name is searched on a country-specific European Google site, like Google.fr or Google.co.uk. 

But that wasn’t enough to appease the Court of Justice, which wants the search engine to also honor the removals on the worldwide Google.com page – a move Google is protesting.

Will the click of a button one day disguise all those ill-advised Facebook posts, self-indulgent selfies, and regrettable online rants? Perhaps. But for now, it's still wise to think before you tweet.

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