Image: ijclark CC BY-NC-ND
Do you remember the internet in 2004? The rules of engagement were almost unrecognisable to the ones of today. Anonymity was supreme. The advice for surfing the internet involved taking extreme lengths to protect your identity. Guidelines suggested keeping each website nickname different, and to never disclose even basic information about yourself such as your gender, age, and general location. It was also a time where the internet was less interlinked. You didn’t use Google or Facebook to log into everything, and Internet message boards and forums had separate user-databases. Internet communities often remained in silos of interest, language, and geography. People’s interactions on one site would be independent from another, and most importantly they would be different from their offline identity.
The New Yorker cartoon by Peter Steiner, July 5 1993. (Eliot Philips CC BY-NC-ND)
Now thirteen years later, we willingly post our private information online, in part, due to social media. Often handing it over without even being asked, and giving more away without understanding what we are divulging. For example, that selfie you posted comes complete with who you’re with, what brands you might like to wear, and is uploaded with a myriad of meta-information such as your GPS location (which your phone imbeds within image files as a default setting). Internet debates within comment sections on matters such as politics and religion are posted by people using their real names, often linking to their Facebook profiles. The guidance internet and social media users should know today is simple: there is more information about you online than you’d expect, most of what you do online is somehow linked to yourself, and you’re a lot more accountable than previously.
The case of Jared O’Mara, the Sheffield Hallam MP whose abusive remarks from 2002 and 2004 recently made major news headlines, is an example of what happens when we forget the above guidance, especially as a public figure. Either he forgot about his previous comments, or failed to recognise that basic protections of anonymity used circa 2004 is no longer effective in today’s internet logic. Combined with the incessant interest MPs attract once elected, it was only a matter of time until his comments, however foolish or old they may be, would be dragged up by the press or political opponents.
O’Mara is not the first politician to have their previous internet history used against them. In Canada a number of political candidates, such as Wiliam Moughrabi, Jad Crnogorac and Bill McEwen had their past online comments exposed. However, the case of O’Mara is distinct. The comments by O’Mara were made in 2002 and 2004, more than a decade ago. People’s opinions and values change and adapt, and something he said then, may not be representative of the person he is now. While the comments he wrote are abhorrent, they might have been acceptable on that particular website, made (and potentially encouraged by) expectation that words spoken would never leave that little corner of the internet. Are the comments he made in 2002 and 2004, something O’Mara would agree with today?
More recent alleged abuse by O’Mara may suggest other personal flaws, however the example poses a key question. Should we judge people by comments they made as much younger people, more than 10 years ago?
It is an especially important issue as the next generation of politicians enter Parliament, many of them being part of the first generations to grow up on the internet. As a result we can expect more of our MPs online history being dragged into the news, similar to Mhairi Black’s Tweets from when she was 15 being uncovered. Like the new generation of MPs, I grew up on the internet. I remember using it as young as 7 in 1997/8. I certainly wouldn’t want to be judged by how I was then, or in 2004, nor would it be representative of who I am now.
I wanted to see if the new cohort agreed with this, so I asked one of the new MPs from the 2017 election, Ben Bradley, Conservative MP for Mansfield, about his experience of becoming an MP and his feelings about his internet history. At 27 years old, Ben is a relative youngster in the House so his experience will be more relevant to new and future MPs who lived their teenage years online:
“I deleted my old social media accounts because my generation are the first whose lives have been documented since our childhood online through platforms like, for me, Bebo, MySpace and then Facebook.
“I deleted my Facebook account and started a new one for several reasons; firstly because all of us who have grown up on that platform have said things publicly we regret – nothing offensive in my case but personal things during times of family upheaval – parents’ divorce etc – that would upset members of my family if it were brought up again, and also because we’ve all been students and teenagers …”
Ben’s argument for deleting his history is perfectly logical. He doesn’t have anything to hide, yet, what possible benefit to him is there by keeping all his old accounts? A journalist or political opponent isn’t going to go through his history and highlight the favourable elements. But they will fixate and report items that will generate headlines. The risks in keeping your history accessible are much higher than any potential reward.
Then again, society’s values also change. Much of the comedy made by Monty Python in the 1970’s might be considered distasteful today, but it is watched with context in mind. There’s probably a range of comments we make today that fit well with societal norms that could be viewed negatively in twenty years’ time. And unlike watching Monty Python, I doubt they will reported with context in mind – not at least when there are headlines to be made.
The benefits of social media use for MPs are still being debated. A report by Democratic Audit does a good job of describing both sides of the argument. But even while MPs face significant political abuse on social networks, I suspect that there will be an increased use of such services. The benefits of social media outweigh the negatives. However, while MPs are moving towards guidelines on how to conduct themselves on social media in the present day; they need to also focus on the actions they took online previously.
The case of O’Mara has highlighted that as a new of generation MPs, who lived their younger year’s online, new guidelines need to be put into place to ensure that what they did or said previously does not come to represent themselves or their politics today. As the O’Mara incident is discussed and new guidance is developed, we should expect the standard practice to be that MPs will hide everything about their internet histories. This may be a real shame, as our online history is part of our identity, and it deletes evidence that MPs and citizens are actually alike, with shared online experiences.
Ultimately, this brings us to a recurring question about our expectation of MPs: Should we judge them as our peers? Admitting that at some stage they too were silly teenagers who got up to mischief and may be adults who make mistakes? The alternative is to expect MPs to be saints, perfect members of society with no past history. Except of course, the odd bit of agricultural mischief.
This blog post was originally published on the Political Studies Assocation’s Political Insight Blog on 1st November 2017.