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What It Means That the Next Wave of Politicians Grew Up Online

Navigating a world where our elected officials have decades-long digital footprints.

Photo by Matthew Gonzalez on Unsplash

So this is what happens when Millennials come into power: 35-year-old Jared O’Mara was elected into British parliament this summer in a huge political upset, beating an incumbent who’d been in the same seat for a decade. O’Mara had been a disability rights advocate for years, and promised to be on the side of anyone with an illness, learning difficulties, mental health issues, or physical disabilities, like the cerebral palsy he grew up with.

Then his digital past caught up with him. Reporters dug up some of his 22-year-old musings—what The Next Web’s Matthew Hughes gently refers to as “hardly the most PC stuff” on online forums some 15 years ago. His opinions covered a wide range of offenses: they were fatphobic, transphobic, misogynistic, homophobic. It was very not-okay, to put it mildly. More allegations have since followed.

He’s now been suspended from the party. In a speech to his peers, he explained that he posted the comments when he was young and going through a hard time. He said he has since changed his ways, according to the Guardian, “I have learned about inequalities of power and how violent language perpetuates them.”

The larger, looming trend here is that the next generation of politicians will have grown up online. As Millennials and Gen Z after them come into office, there’s going to be a lot more of the past to dredge up. The digital doings of those with political power—from James Comey’s alter ego Reinhold Niebuhr to “Carlos Danger”—are subject to public scrutiny. And of course, it varies in severity—posting something offensive is very different than a “staffer” accidentally liking lewd content. But what about things people posted when they were teenagers, before they had amassed power or influence?

Writing at The Next Web, Hughes’ main point is not that O’Mara shouldn’t take accountability for his actions—he should—but that O’Mara’s past views are “not necessarily a reflection of the person he is today, and have nothing to do with his record as an MP.”

As those in office will soon be (and already are) Millennials who likely use at least one form of social media, this is going to be a continuing problem. Especially seeing as 86 percent of people between 18 to 29 years old use at least one social media site as of November 2016, according to the Pew Research Center. For someone running for office, that provides a seemingly endless archive of content for opponents to dredge up compared to yesteryear. (Though to be clear, dredging up anything and everything on opposing political candidates and airing it for all the media to see has been around for a long time: think circa 1796.)

Teens (and young people) say irresponsible things—they always have, possibly because their brains are more disposed to risk taking than adults. Hughes points to remarks from Alphabet’s executive chairman Eric Schmidt back in 2013 at the Hay Festival, where he voiced concern about the surprising durability of our lives online, and how much that’s changed since just a few decades ago. “Society has always had ways of dealing with errant teenagers,” Schmidt said, namely by means of punishment. But that punishment wasn’t long-lasting, he said, noting, “They grow out of it and become fine, upstanding leaders.”

I worry that we may get to a world in which we think, the internet makes it a lot harder to hide offensive behavior and we should be more lenient of that, which is, obviously, not great. But the broader question of whether people should be able to outgrow their archived, digital pasts is a poignant one.

Take an early example from 2008: Carmen Kontur-Gronquist, the mayor of Arlington, Oregon, was removed from office because of the discovery of a MySpace photo “taken years before she became mayor,” ABC News reported where she was “clad in a black bra and underwear, posing on a local fire truck.” This brings up many, many complicated problems. For instance, how people, especially women, choose to represent themselves online is different from offensive things people say that can harm others.

But that photo was on MySpace. Think about how much more pervasive social sharing is today.

It’s worth mentioning how strange a paradox this is. Social media—and the internet—has provided the platform for some of the most outspoken and progressive young voices. And yet, it could also discourage those same voices from running for office because it asserts what they’ve posted, though ephemeral, is somehow writ in stone. As with O’Mara’s case, it undermines people’s ability to leave their pasts behind. This has extended into private careers as well, as more and more companies screen candidates via social media. About half of companies in a 2015 survey for the Society for Human Resource Management said they did so, and that percentage has got to be higher today. This has also provided a market opportunity: for a cool $100 a year subscription, a startup called BrandYourself helps users purge their web presence of embarrassing social media posts.

As a Millennial who’s been watching the shifting tides of the Internet for years, it really does seem like we need to educate teens about what they’re offering up to the World Wide Web, not just because of their potential political power later in life. We should be highlighting the fact that, while our personalities might change as we grow older, all those old social media posts stay the same. Possibly, at some later date, ready to be dredged. And a word of caution to parents who take to social media with photos of their children before said children are old enough to understand the implications or even consent. Not to mention your kids may sue you, later on.

So where does that leave us in a world that forgets nothing and a society that forgives nothing?

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