It won’t be long before Millennials sit in the leader’s chair of every federal political party. And when that day comes, our national conversation will be focused on the real issues that matter to Canadians: who said, did, or posted the most embarrassing tweet or photo online. War rooms are gonna have it so easy.
The Facebook generation is a different kind of generation than previous ones. They’ve lived much of their lives online. First it was an instant messaging service called ICQ (remember that one?) and promptly followed by MSN Messenger. After that, the Facebook and Twitter craze took hold.
Their parents hung out in shopping malls. Millennials, on the other hand, carved out a space online to hang out and geek around, says social media scholar danah boyd. Indeed, social media has become an important place of socialization where people hang out with our friends, gossip, and, like friends do, get into heated arguments.
In 2007, The Economist described social media as “like sitting around campfires again but with vastly superior tools for sharing, bonding, and planning.” If you’re one of the millions on social media, you know this mostly to be true. But we tend to forget that these platforms are great at something else: archiving.
More than any other generation, our everyday conversations are or can be archived for retrieval. In politics, they can be used against us in the court of public opinion. This means the heated argument you had with your best friend is up for grabs. The over-the-top reaction you had to someone trolling or bullying you online, expressed from a place of deep anger, can be taken out of context and used by your opponents to define your character. The embarrassing photo of you at a party during your undergraduate years after a few drinks can distract from your campaign platform.
Hoo boy, the 2023 election is going to be something of a barn burner!
Up until now, the cycle has been predictable. Opposing political war rooms, seeking to derail your campaign, exhaustively research your candidates for damaging past comments. These comments are handed over to reporters to become news. These candidates are summarily booted from the ticket to avoid any distraction since campaigns have increasingly become centralized and message driven.
In the good old days, you would have to inundate yourself with news archives or print material to find what you were looking for—or wait for a candidate to say something really stupid mid-campaign. Aha! Look! Candidate said X when the party said Y. Gotcha!
The practice, at times, has its merits. There’s value in shining a light on diversity of opinion within a party or pointing to the contradictions between politician’s current and past statements. That’s fine and even healthy for a democracy.
But the problem with the Facebook generation is that the old rules don’t always apply. Not every tweet, especially taken out of context, is worth reporting. Nor should they be damaging enough to distract a campaign. Here are a few things to consider:
Context matters. On Twitter, for example, users have 140 characters to get their point across. We have to be creative, sometimes using shortcuts or jargon that only those closest to us understand. Even more, it’s difficult to ascertain the meaning of a stand alone tweet without knowing more information. The tweet might be straightforward or it might be ironic given the headlines of that day.
Normal human behaviour matters. Think about the arguments you’ve been engaged in where you’ve gone over the top to make your point or when you felt insecure and became overly defensive. It’s happened to all of us. The difference here is that these normal overreactions are archived for future reference. Also, see previous paragraph on context.
Learning over time matters. When a campaign or journalist digs up a quote, it’s important to verify whether the candidate continues to believe in that statement, whether they ever believed in that statement (again, see context paragraph) and/or whether they’ve evolved on the issue. My God, if I were held to my beliefs from the first year of my undergraduate degree, current me’s head would explode.
With more of the Facebook generation running for office, we need to start asking ourselves if we are comfortable with the fact that, increasingly, all candidates will be asked to answer for these kinds of posts—for their past “every day” conversations. If we are, are we then comfortable with the kinds of candidates who will pass muster under such standards? i.e. people who have changed their minds on various issues, who don’t really get political online, who are afraid to express a position publicly, etc.
The response to recent “scandals” involving social media is that parties will likely vet their candidates harder. Instead, I suggest we need to rethink the use of our digital past in the political sphere. At this point, journalist need to figure out how to report past social media activities since not every tweet tells the whole story. Or an interesting story. Or any story, for that matter. Further, campaigns need to realize that not every post will be a derailment or a distraction. The vast majority of Canadians are on social media. So we get it. We’ve all gotten into trouble for one post or another. Even more, today’s short news cycle means some of these will be out of the spotlight in no time.
If collectively we can’t figure out a way to deal with our social media past, the 2023 ballot question won’t be about the economy, or health care, or the environment. It will be a race-to-the-bottom campaign about how much Twitter mud sticks to whom. And that’s not helpful or healthy for anyone.