Getting cheated on sucks—and it’s even worse when the proof is all over Instagram

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We live in a brave new world of dating, one where we Google every potential mate before meeting up and surveil our partners on social media to make sure we know what they’re up to. In some cases, that cyberstalking is totally merited, as it may turn up some unpleasant evidence of cheating: Mic.com’s Kate Hakala recently spoke with “Camila,” a 24-year-old Instagram user who discovered photos of her boyfriend dining with another woman posted to the social media platform. When she went to the “other woman’s” account, it was filled with similar photos.

In 2015, suspicious partners don’t even need to stalk—because our unfaithful lovers freely post evidence of their infidelity for the world to see. The Internet has changed cheating from an act that takes place in the shadows—or the corner of a darkened restaurant—to a public ritual. Cheating now occurs in broad daylight—or at least under a bold Dogpatch filter.

At Glamour, Jillian Kramer speaks to the very public nature of the Internet and the insecurities it can bring: “While years ago we might not have caught him slyly scoping out the cute blond in the corner, the evidence of him appreciating another woman’s looks can now live on the Internet (and our smartphones) forever.” Evidence of cheating is both impossible to avoid and increasingly easy to access for partners willing to do light social media sleuthing.

A particularly egregious example came up on Metafilter last month, when a user posed an unusual question: “Did my boyfriend just get married?” She’d discovered wedding photos of her long-distance boyfriend online (pictured with his ex) and was determined to find some way to justify them. According to him, the pics were “from a video that his university is making for new students to show how glamorous graduate school life can be (he’s a professor and an alum).” As a comment in the thread points out that his explanation hardly “passes the sniff test”:

Why on earth would a graduate school use wedding photos or video to promote student life? That seems super weird. Also, does it make sense to you that your boyfriend wouldn’t mention being involved in a PR photo shoot? With his ex-girlfriend?

Even more egregious than is the fact that she didn’t have to hunt very hard for the photos—one of his students had posted them on Facebook. Unbelievably, her boyfriend even sent her the link. Congratulations from friends and followers rolled in on the photos as she desperately tried to understand what was going on. Ultimately, the commenters managed to convince her that she was being gaslighted: Yes, her boyfriend had married someone else, and he was so callous about their relationship that he didn’t see any problem with dumping her via Facebook wedding photos.

She’s far from the only girlfriend—or boyfriend, but blatant evidence of cheating posted online seems to be a strongly heterosexual male activity—to have caught her boyfriend red-handed. Many social media users seem unaware of how privacy settings work, not realizing who can read a status update, or just not caring. Others aren’t aware of how easy it is to connect the dots on social media—someone who routinely spots a partner liking posts and photos by someone else can easily navigate to that person’s profile and may discover something unsavory in the process.

Evidence of cheating is both impossible to avoid and increasingly easy to access for partners willing to do light social media sleuthing.

As Hakala noted, though, sometimes boyfriends really dig the knife in by changing their Facebook status to “single,” or, worse yet, changing it to “in a relationship” with another woman. These cases cross the line from pure stupidity on the part of someone who doesn’t think wisely about who might be viewing a social media account to active cruelty. Such partners are clearly aware that their significant others use social media and are active on their accounts, and they choose to broadcast their contempt for their exes rather than parting ways in a more dignified manner.

Hakala calls this the “Insta-Dump,” describing it as “the latest callous, evasive approach to ending modern relationships. Instead of being ghosted, the victim finds out they’ve been broken up with publicly, on social media.”

This is definitely worse than the ignominy of being dumped by text message, as your humiliation is there for the entire world to see; moreover, your “friends” may have known about the situation before you were even aware. This approach to love and relationships reflects not only our changing definitions of infidelity but how we behave when we live in public: As with everything in the social media age, cheating has become almost performative. It’s a literal case of “pics or it didn’t happen.”

Historically, this was not the case. Identifying a cheater could be a challenge, requiring a determined partner to put together pieces of a potentially very complex puzzle. Because cheating was a personal matter, it was also possible to have a conversation about a troubled relationship in private, rather than being outed and forced to have an emotional, potentially embarrassing conversation in front of 2,000 followers.

Today, though, cheating has become nearly impossible to hide for those who are heavily engaged on social media. If you’re not posting status updates or photos that potentially implicate them, users are forced to explain and account for puzzling gaps in activity that develop when they have to hide parts of their lives from the public—and especially their partners.

As with everything in the social media age, cheating has become almost performative. It’s a literal case of “pics or it didn’t happen.”

What Hakala refers to as the “Insta-dump” isn’t always a breakup so much as an incidence of naked—sometimes literally—obvious cheating, but it’s telling that the casual viewer jumps right from evidence of infidelity to automatic dumping. As an infamous incident featuring a blue dress illustrated, couples who experience cheating can and do reconcile, and it’s not just the Clintons. In the social media era, however, there’s a pressure for instantaneous response, and few people would instantly respond to evidence of cheating with a commitment to talk about the relationship and determine if it’s salvageable.

While the Internet has made infidelity publicly visible, it’s also made the underlying issues more difficult to address, giving couples little room to explore the problems within their relationships on their own, privately. A culture of surveillance hasn’t been so great for the NSA, and it turns out that it’s not so much better for us either.

S.E. Smith is a writer, editor, and agitator with regular appearances in the Guardian, AlterNet, and Salon, along with several anthologies. Smith also serves as the Social Justice Editor for xoJane and will be co-chairing Wiscon 40—the preeminent feminist science-fiction conference—in 2016.

Photo via Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library UofT/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

S.E. Smith

S.E. Smith

s.e. smith is a Northern California-based journalist and writer focusing on social justice issues. smith's work has appeared in publications like Esquire, the Guardian, Rolling Stone, In These Times, Bitch Magazine, and Pacific Standard.