Social Media, Politics, and Making Mistakes

Last week’s post sort of got me thinking about the election coming up and some general issues with politics in general, so I figured I should capitalize on that interest and talk about something that’s been on my mind for a while. We live in the era of social media and internet documentation, in which any stupid thing that gets posted online could be archived and retrieved years or potentially even decades later. Related, the list of politicians and other public figures caught up in scandals because of something they said online is only growing longer.

The question is this: in such a cultural and political climate, could anyone who grew up with social media ever be considered remotely electable?

Setting aside the obvious conclusion that, yes, they’ll have to be (those pre-social media old fogeys can’t stay in power forever, though goodness knows they’ll try), this is a surprisingly complicated issue that will require us to think about just what constitutes a scandal and how the criteria for controversy can change over time.

So maybe close that Facebook tab for now. You can post something afterward…depending on whether or not you have any interest in going into politics.

I’ve seen my fair share of stupid things on Facebook. I’ve probably posted a number of stupid things myself, in fact. All of these posts are accessible on Facebook for an indefinite length of time, and the site is all too happy to remind you of this fact with its recent “On This Day” function, which will annually highlight everything you’ve ever posted in a terrible cycle of embarrassment and self-loathing.

However, embarrassment might just be the least of your worries. If your Facebook profile is publicly visible (that is, if your posts can be seen even by people with whom you aren’t friends), expect that any potential employer will be evaluating you as a candidate based on your online presence. Same goes for any other visible account, such as a YouTube channel, Twitter, or even a blog. If it’s directly associated with your name and it’s visible to the public, there is a nontrivial chance that it can be found by anyone after a quick Google search and maybe a little digging.

This is even more true when it comes to politics, where your “potentially employers” are the entire citizenship of your constituency. This topic was recently examined by Vice with the case of Deborah Drever, a 27-year-old who was elected this year as a Member of Legislative Assembly in Alberta. She immediately faced some concerns over a number of photos on her Facebook page and Instagram and was later removed from the NDP.

As a little food for thought, take a look through that article at some of the photos that drew the ire of Albertan citizens and MLAs. Then think back on your own years of young adulthood — say, between ages 15 and 25 (if you haven’t hit this age yet, enjoy the time you have left). If you happened to be active on Facebook or other social media sites in that time period, revisit the things you posted. It’s okay, this is a safe space. No judgment.

In these formative years, you likely made a number of mistakes and questionable decisions, and that’s totally fine. The current generation of teenagers and young adults is likely no more or less rebellious and irresponsible than those of past or future generations, no matter how many baby boomers you hear complaining about “kids these days.”

What sets our generation apart, and what caused a lot of problems for Deborah Drever, is that we’re the first generation to have our experiences meticulously documented and stored so that others can scrutinize our pasts whenever we step into the public spotlight. And this isn’t some Big Brother-esque record maintained by a shadowy government. We do it to ourselves because it’s what we know how to do.

I won’t go into the far-reaching implications of social media on our psychology and sociology here, because that’s beyond the scope of this article, but I will say that the growing role of the internet in our lives and identities is affecting us in a myriad of incompletely understood ways. At this point, research is struggling to keep up with a society that is incorporating social media into almost every facet of our existence.

For practical purposes, millenials are growing up with a technological aspect to society that our parents could never have imagined and are still learning how to use for themselves. While older politicians are facing scandals that originate from not knowing how to use social media correctly (like Anthony Weiner mistakenly tweeting a sexually suggestive picture), younger politicians like Drever are being punished for their familiarity and comfort with sites and services like Facebook, Instagram, and Tumblr. After all, Drever would certainly not be facing this controversy if she never had a Facebook account.

In this case, however, the status quo will not last. Either we’ll stop making the sort of social media posts that landed Drever in hot water, or they’ll stop being scandals.

The behaviour and events that we deem to be scandalous often have a very pronounced sociocultural aspect, stemming from what our society deems to be unacceptable or taboo. As an example, consider politicians like Nancy Wechsler, Jerry DeGrieck, Elaine Noble, and Harvey Milk, all of them among the first openly homosexual American politicians (here‘s a more detailed list including info on other countries). Admitting to being a member of the LGBTQ community would have been absolute political suicide only a generation earlier, and it was still incredibly slow and inconsistent progress, but the societal norms gradually shifted.

Or consider the fact that both Barack Obama and Justin Trudeau have admitted to smoking marijuana in the past — the latter even admitting to smoking pot after he was elected. This would have been all but inconceivable during the “War on Drugs” era, but the shifting political tides and the surge of support for the legalization of marijuana have allowed politicians to admit to their past without having to look for a new job.

Not all of these examples are equal in magnitude, of course. The point is just to show that what could once derail a political campaign can be entirely acceptable just a few decades or even years later.

That Vice article about Drever concludes that anyone interested in going into politics will have to be “social media celibate” until they’ve left  young adulthood, but I don’t think that’s entirely true. Yes, the most surefire way to guarantee that you haven’t posted anything controversial or stupid online is to avoid posting anything at all (or to stick to safe territory, like pictures of your food or puppies), but I legitimately don’t think that this will remain an issue for years to come.

As time goes on, these young people will get older, and more and more of the voter base will be composed of people who grew up with social media. They won’t be as fazed when the news reports that the latest political candidate engaged in a neknomination or posted nothing but dank memes until the age of 25. They’ll remember being young and making similar mistakes themselves, and what’s more, they’ll remember that they were just as inane and vapid on Facebook too.

I will obviously admit that this doesn’t cover everything. Drever’s choice to use “gay boyz” as a caption for a photo from just a year before the election could indicate some questionable judgment. Even if it doesn’t necessarily demonstrate homophobic views, it could suggest a level of immaturity that isn’t a good characteristic of a government representative. But drinking a few beers with friends, putting a cardboard box on your head, or flipping off the Canadian flag five years before the election, when she was just 22, well, I would deem that to be much less important to my voting choice than what she’s doing now.

After all, Facebook seems to take pleasure in reminding me how much of a tool I was five years ago, so who am I to judge?

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