Flash Forward: Revenge of the Retweet

Today we try to figure out what happens when our future presidential candidates have thousands of Tweets and Tumblr posts and Instagrams in their online record.

What happens, when today’s teens start running for office? When their entire internet history is there, searchable, for us to read? What if these teens Tweet something at 15 that they might regret at 45? Do we learn to accept that their opinions have changed? Or do we go through every candidate’s entire social media history to find dirt on them? Does that tactic still work in the future? Or do we all just throw up our hands and admit that teens have bad opinions and that hopefully those opinions have changed?

To find out, I talked to a real live young person with political ambitions, Eve Zhurbinskiy a student at George Washington University. She describes her own social media strategy, and how she never Tweets without thinking about how it might come back to bite her. She also talks about going back and deleting Facebook posts and even in one case her entire Tumblr because she thought it might be used against her.

And that’s not paranoid, I also talk to someone who tracks that kind of thing among politicians. Josh Stewart from the Sunlight Foundation explains what Politwoops is and why they’re tracking the deleted Tweets of politicians.

And to round things out this episode I talked to someone who’s got a lot of experience managing digital campaigns for today’s politicians. Laura Olin was one of the first hires for Obama’s 2012 digital team, and she not only ran the Obama Tumblr, but she also actually Tweeted as the President.

Throughout the episode we discuss all kinds of questions about how we think about and forgive humans.

In March of this year, a State Supreme Court justice from Wisconsin named Rebecca Bradley issued an apology for some columns that she wrote 24 years ago in a student newspaper. In the columns she referred to gay people as “queers” and called people with AIDS “degenerates who basically commit suicide through their behavior.” She also said that it would be better to get AIDS than cancer, because, quote “those afflicted with the politically correct disease will be getting all of the funding.” And that abortion is like the Holocaust and slavery.

Bradley says that she was, quote “frankly embarrassed at the content and tone of what I wrote those many years ago” but she also said that when she wrote them, she was “a very young student.” Now the release of these 24 year old columns wasn’t random, the organization that found the columns unveiled them just a month before voters in Wisconsin would vote on whether or not Bradley should retain her seat on the court.

People who wanted Bradley off the court, said that the comments in the columns were so hateful that time didn’t really matter. People who wanted Bradley to say said that she had grown and learned since then, and did not still hold those beliefs. (To be clear, there was also a contingent of people who supported Bradley because they still do hold those beliefs).

So, voters in Wisconsin could decide. And they decided to keep her, Bradley won her seat back. So you could interpret that as evidence that past transgressions can be forgiven, right?

So this brings us to one version of this future. A future in which voters learn to approach their candidates as flawed individuals, people who have made missteps, people who can change their mind. This isn’t to say that we let people off the hook for their past, but rather that we are okay with them saying “I was wrong, and here’s how I’ve changed for the better.”

I think there’s an interesting ethical question here. Is there some kind of fundamental threshold for past behavior or comments after which the person becomes unredeemable. Like, are there some things that are so bad that we’re just not willing to let that person be elected even if they say they’ve changed. Are there some things that are so hateful that they simply disqualify you from holding elected office? What if she had written something even worse? Is there any thought, that is so gross and terrible, that we just won’t believe that a person who would say that could change?

I don’t know. I like to think that people can change. But if they’re advocating for something super horrible, is there a point of no return. And if not, then the question becomes, do you want to know that a candidate once thought that, even if you think they can and have changed their minds? How does someone prove that they’re better now than they used to be?

In the light version of this future, we all see candidates, with their warts and all, past Tweets and racist jokes and fat shaming Tumblrs and ableist Snapchats. And we hold them accountable and ask them to prove how they’ve changed for the better. And then we grapple with that on a case by case basis, admitting that every human is flawed and hopefully voting for the best person for the job at hand.

But there’s a dystopian version of this future too. And it’s not one in which everybody just gives up on trying to elect people without hateful, racist pasts. It’s a future where we don’t know the past of our elected officials. A future where the only people we elect are those with a completely clean, perfect, online record. And the only folks who can have that, of course, are people with the money and connections and foresight to do so.

So while the rest of us normal people carry on, putting our dumb opinions on the internet, the political elite, groomed by their parents from a very young age, either avoid social media entirely, or pay someone to curate their social media record. Which means that maybe our future politicians will indeed have all kinds of horrible opinions, but there won’t be any way to know or prove it. And in this future, where we refuse to grapple with the idea that someone might be qualified for office even if they Tweeted something sexist when they were 15, we wind up excluding a huge swath of the population from politics. Which of course already happens, right, I mean politicians in general in the United States already come from really privileged backgrounds. But in this future, it’s worse. There would be no elected officials who didn’t come from or have money and connections.

And that’s a future that’s scarier, to me, than reading through all the Tweets from a candidate’s high school and college life.

What do you think? Will our future voting selves be able to handle complex politicians who once had bad ideas? Or will our future politicians only come from elite circles savvy and rich enough to have a clean record? Or some combination of both? It’s always some combination of both, isn’t it.


Full transcript available in site.

Technology Topics
High School
9th Grade, 10th Grade, 11th Grade, 12th Grade, Adults

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