Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Young Politicians and Social Media Baggage

It is unlikely that many people know the name Deborah Drever. She was recently elected to be the MLA for Calgary-Bow for the NDP. However a string of discoveries on her social media accounts gained media attention which embarrassed the party. After a photo came to light that contained a homophobic slur the party moved to suspend Drever from the caucus

To be clear I do not intend to defend Ms. Drever. What I will say is that the 26-year-old MLA is being judged for photos from when she was 19-years-old in some cases. Some of them are far more recent and the frivolity of youth provides limited cover to her statements. I am only one year older than Ms. Drever and as a person who has participated in politics and thought about a career in the partisan side of government I have often feared what comments I have made on Twitter or Facebook or elsewhere on the internet that can come back to haunt me. I can easily recall things I've said in jest that out of context would be humiliating for a public figure.

Deborah Drever is not an outlier but an omen. We have had politicians behaving badly on social media before, that's not new, what is new is a younger person who has spent years on social media being asked to account for comments they made well before they entered the public sphere. It seems to me that this is a question that our political culture is going to have to increasingly wrestle with because there will soon come a time when all politicians have this sort of baggage.

It reminds me a bit of the episode of The West Wing, The Supremes, when they have to nominate a Supreme Court justice but anyone with controversial decisions has to be nixed from contention. That is until they figure out how to put Donna's parents' cats on the bench. This is a tangent... The point is that people live their lives on social media and to our great misfortune privacy is becoming increasingly difficult to preserve, especially for those who wish to engage in the political discourse. I've heard it said that social media has basically transformed everyone into a public figure to greater or lesser degree.

On a somewhat related note I heard a tidbit from the UK election that had me wondering. From the BBC I heard that every MP elected under the age of 30 was a member of a political family. To me this raised real questions about whether or not there was room for young Members of Parliament outside of nepotism. The NDP has trumpeted successful elections of younger candidates in 2011 federally and in Alberta this May but that came during a wave. Would these young men and women have even been considered for this opportunity if they were not perceived to be such long shots?

I would hope that in coming years we will be respectful to candidates and barring seriously controversial material we can ignore the things that are a little more embarrassing to drag out in the public eye. However, I would say that things such as blog posts or essays written by politicians could be fodder for questioning. Dissecting someone's character from 140 characters seems far less valuable.

What worries me is that this is a simple story for partisans to find and journalists to report. Instead we are more likely to humiliate those who come forward into public life, which again raises questions about how will we engage the next generation to become leaders and take on positions of authority within our communities.

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