Election lessons about social media

It has been a very interesting few weeks in politics, hasn’t it? This being election season, you’re stuck with it, whether or not you follow it.

And while the platforms and party politics are interesting, the most fascinating part of this provincial election has been how Internet history has come back to haunt people. No other election in which I’ve participated has seen this amount of controversy over candidates’ online footprint.

First it was Matthew MacKnight, a Liberal candidate from Pictou East. Back in 2013 he made an offensive comment on his personal Twitter account, and it was discovered by officials from the McNeil campaign. MacKnight was dropped because of the “inappropriate social media commentary” and the Liberals denounced his comments as being out of line with the values of the party, leaving the entire debacle to slip quietly into the night and out of the minds of voters, with any luck.

Said NDP leader Gary Burrill about MacKnight’s firing: “When a person runs for office, people have a right to expect some standard of conduct and of character…. this seems like the right course of action for them to take and what people would wish to see them do.”

Advantage: PC and NDP, right? Wrong.

Next came Dartmouth East NDP candidate Bill McEwen, who was found to have contributed to a Web site using sexist and derogatory language. Although he took responsibility, within hours of his on-camera apology, he had withdrawn from the race with nothing but a “don’t let the door hit you on the way out” from the NDP. Progressive Conservative leader Jamie Baillie commented by saying, “I think it’s important for parties to get a good feel for the values and the viewpoints of their candidates they’re putting on their team…”

“Hold my beer,” as the young people say, because it was about to go three-for-three, party-wise, in pretty spectacular fashion.

Just when the PC party was surely counting its good fortune to not be embroiled in such unfortunate scandal, news broke of their Dartmouth South candidate, Jad Crnogorac, having questionable comments and photos on her Twitter and Instagram feeds. She was unceremoniously shown the door, but she has since publicly leveled some pretty unflattering accusations at the leader of her party having to do with alleged inappropriate comments and behaviour.

For anyone counting, that’s three candidates in the span of two weeks, one from each major political party. I’ve got a shiny quarter that says news interns are burning the midnight oil, scouring the social media pages of every candidate running in this election.

I remember back in the good ol’ days of being idealistic about politics, before I knew better. I clearly remember arguing with people back in the ‘90s about how Bill Clinton deserved to be impeached because of his affair. I cited “representatives of the people should be held to a higher standard” and moral compasses and all that self-righteousness. And I believed it, truly, even as people pointed out that he was a great leader and that his marital fidelity had little affect on his ability to govern the country.

I do believe the notion to be true, that politicians should be held to a different standard, but I think that standard has become harder to maintain with social media, no question about it.

Your on-line footprint is an extension of you. It is your views, your habits, and your humour, warts and all. I bet anyone who goes back to view their first year’s worth of tweets or posts would find something they were embarrassed by; not necessarily because it’s damning, but as we waded into the unfamiliar waters of social media a decade ago, things were different. Statements and language once thought to be benign or only slightly off-colour, having had 10 years to be pondered, could now be considered highly offensive.

Were we the dregs of society for posting something in 2007 that people deem a no-no in 2017? Or were we careless, unconscientious, unaware of the ramifications down the road once social media changed from being a casual recreational platform to the content for which we’d be publicly judged? I don’t know about you, but when I first signed up for Twitter I gave little thought to someone 10 years down-the-road potentially scrutinizing the complete history of my tweets, and I’m not alone with that decade-old oblivion. It’s a great lesson for today’s young people.

If someone’s social media unearths actual racist or sexist or otherwise unbecoming views or attitudes, then their being removed from a ballot is political Darwinism. I can’t help but feel sorry, though, for bright, ambitious people who will have their political careers derailed because of a lack of foresight.

Mark my words, there are many to come.

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Gina MacDonald is a freelance columnist, mother and wife who lives outside Port Hawkesbury.