Paris Brown: Social media means your awful 17-year-old self is shackled to you forever

The attacks on Britain’s first youth police commissioner for some carelessly offensive tweets show that unless you’re an unusually cautious or discreet teenager, you’re writing a patchwork public diary without realising it.


Some days I thank the stars that Twitter wasn’t invented until I was 32. The occasion this time is the Mail on Sunday’s comically disingenuous “exposé” of Britain’s first youth police commissioner, 17-year-old Paris Brown: yet another pseudo-scandal drawn from Twitter’s bottomless well of fauxtroversy.

The tweets revealed by the paper’s reporter Russell Myers tell us many things about Brown. She swears. She gets drunk. She talks about sex that she may or may not be actually having. She uses carelessly offensive language. She thinks weed is funny. She is “self-obsessed”. In short, she is a teenager. To Myers her opinions are so horrifyingly alien that the police might as well have hired Alex from A Clockwork Orange but anyone who actually remembers being a teenager might not be quite so alarmed. (Obviously it’s wonderful to find the Mail standing up so firmly for the rights of gay people and immigrants, although I fear that Myers is in for quite a shock when he reads the rest of the paper that employs him.)

Teenagers are messy, thorny creatures, maddened by hormones, rubbed raw by the onslaught of new emotions and unprecedented situations, prey to obscure resentments, petty prejudices and half-understood, third-hand ideas, often self-righteous and thoughtlessly cruel but just as frequently (though less publicly) vulnerable and compassionate. Growing up is a long process and Brown is still in its midst. The central theme of the TV shows Girls and Fresh Meat is how malleable we are even in our early 20s, constantly re-presenting ourselves to those around us as we fumble towards a stable, adult identity. To a 17-year-old, even a tweet from a year ago can seem like the work of another, more embarrassing, more incomplete person.

Every now and then I’m gut-punched by the memory of something stupid or unpleasant I did in my teens, as I’m sure most people are. Coming-of-age tales from Great Expectations to The Catcher in the Rye tell us again and again what emotional havoc young people can wreak even while believing their intentions are just.

But for people of my generation these are only memories, blessedly undocumented. The problem with social media is that it preserves every step of this chaotic journey. Growing up is a process of rewriting yourself but Twitter and Facebook function as palimpsests of all the versions of yourself that are better forgotten until, if you’re unlucky enough to be of public interest, the traces are uncovered years later by malicious reporters and magnified to unrecognisably grotesque proportions.

I used to think that social media’s muddying of the border between private and public was most problematic for older users whereas so-called digital natives understood the rules of the game, but of course many don’t, for the simple reason that they are of an age when they don’t understand much about the way the world works. Unless you’re an unusually cautious or discreet teenager, you’re writing a patchwork public diary without realising it, revealing things about yourself that you don’t consciously intend to stand by years, or even weeks, later. Even adults sometimes tweet things in the heat of the moment that they later regret so why would people too young to be trusted with a car or the vote be infallibly wise when it comes to what they give away online?

We’re increasingly aware of just how foggy teenagers’ understanding of social media’s implications can be. As Rhiannon Lucy Cosslett recently wrote in the New Statesman, following the Steubenville rape case, “Rather than seeing the web as a witness to their lives, standing outside the action, as many of the older generation would, younger people consider it a component of their lived experience. The internet doesn’t just confirm your existence: it is your existence.”

No doubt Paris Brown’s monstering by the Mail will scare some teenagers into thinking twice about what they say on Twitter and Facebook but thinking twice isn’t really adolescents’ forte. They are too caught up in the fierce nowness of life to consider which tweets or posts might one day rise up to cost them a job or a relationship.

And yet young people are aware there is a general problem. Viktor Mayer-Schönberger, professor of internet governance at the Oxford Internet Institute, advocates an expiration date on online data to establish the “right to be forgotten”. He cites a 2011 study by the University of Berkeley that found that 84 per cent of 18-to-24-year-olds wanted this right enshrined in legislation.

Mayer-Schönberger told the Guardian last week: “Our brains reconstruct the past based on our present values. Take the diary you wrote 15 years ago, and you see how your values have changed. There is a cognitive dissonance between now and then. The brain reconstructs the memory and deletes certain things. It is how we construct ourselves as human beings, rather than flagellating ourselves about things we've done. But digital memories will only remind us of the failures of our past, so that we have no ability to forget or reconstruct our past.”

“Right to be forgotten” legislation is currently moving through the EU but this is really more of a moral issue than a legal one. Even if “incriminating” information is out there, we don’t need to dwell on it. Better to forgive youthful errors and let people like Paris Brown outgrow their crasser, shallower selves. It’s fantastic that Kent Police and Crime Commissioner Ann Barnes has rebuffed opportunistic calls for Brown to resign. If Brown’s job is to represent the experiences of genuine teenagers, rather than spotlessly mature mini-adults, then she is clearly well-equipped.


Paris Brown during an emotional BBC interview.

Dorian Lynskey is a journalist living in London. He blogs at:

Photo: Getty Images
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I'm far from convinced by Cameron's plans for Syria

The Prime Minister has a plan for when the bombs drop. But what about after?

In the House of Commons today, the Prime Minister set out a powerful case for Britain to join air strikes against Isil in Syria.  Isil, he argued, poses a direct threat to Britain and its people, and Britain should not be in the business of “outsourcing our security to our allies”. And while he conceded that further airstrikes alone would not be sufficient to beat Isil, he made the case for an “Isil first” strategy – attacking Isil now, while continuing to do what we can diplomatically to help secure a lasting settlement for Syria in which Assad (eventually) plays no part.

I agreed with much of David Cameron’s analysis. And no-one should doubt either the murderous barbarism of Isil in the region, or the barbarism they foment and inspire in others across the world.  But at the end of his lengthy Q&A session with MPs, I remained unconvinced that UK involvement in airstrikes in Syria was the right option. Because the case for action has to be a case for action that has a chance of succeeding.  And David Cameron’s case contained neither a plan for winning the war, nor a plan for winning the peace.

The Prime Minister, along with military experts and analysts across the world, concedes that air strikes alone will not defeat Isil, and that (as in Iraq) ground forces are essential if we want to rid Syria of Isil. But what is the plan to assemble these ground forces so necessary for a successful mission?  David Cameron’s answer today was more a hope than a plan. He referred to “70,000 Syrian opposition fighters - principally the Free Syrian Army (FSA) – with whom we can co-ordinate attacks on Isil”.

But it is an illusion to think that these fighters can provide the ground forces needed to complement aerial bombardment of Isil.  Many commentators have begun to doubt whether the FSA continues to exist as a coherent operational entity over the past few months. Coralling the myriad rebel groups into a disciplined force capable of fighting and occupying Isil territory is a heroic ambition, not a plan. And previous efforts to mobilize the rebels against Isil have been utter failures. Last month the Americans abandoned a $500m programme to train and turn 5,400 rebel fighters into a disciplined force to fight Isil. They succeeded in training just 60 fighters. And there have been incidents of American-trained fighters giving some of their US-provided equipment to the Nusra Front, an affiliate of Al Qaeda.

Why has it proven so hard to co-opt rebel forces in the fight against Isil? Because most of the various rebel groups are fighting a war against Assad, not against Isil.  Syria’s civil war is gruesome and complex, but it is fundamentally a Civil War between Assad’s forces and a variety of opponents of Assad’s regime. It would be a mistake for Britain to base a case for military action against Isil on the hope that thousands of disparate rebel forces can be persuaded to change their enemy – especially when the evidence so far is that they won’t.

This is a plan for military action that, at present, looks highly unlikely to succeed.  But what of the plan for peace? David Cameron today argued for the separation of the immediate task at hand - to strike against Isil in Syria – from the longer-term ambition of achieving a settlement in Syria and removing Assad.  But for Isil to be beaten, the two cannot be separated. Because it is only by making progress in developing a credible and internationally-backed plan for a post-Assad Syria that we will persuade Syrian Sunnis that fighting Isil will not end up helping Assad win the Civil War.  If we want not only to rely on rebel Sunnis to provide ground troops against Isil, but also provide stable governance in Isil-occupied areas when the bombing stops, progress on a settlement to Syria’s Civil War is more not less urgent.  Without it, the reluctance of Syrian Sunnis to think that our fight is their fight will undermine the chances of military efforts to beat Isil and bring basic order to the regions they control. 

This points us towards doubling down on the progress that has already been made in Vienna: working with the USA, France, Syria’s neighbours and the Gulf states, as well as Russia and Iran. We need not just a combined approach to ending the conflict, but the prospect of a post-war Syria that offers a place for those whose cooperation we seek to defeat Isil. No doubt this will strike some as insufficient in the face of the horrors perpetrated by Isil. But I fear that if we want not just to take action against Isil but to defeat them and prevent their return, it offers a better chance of succeeding than David Cameron’s proposal today. 

Stewart Wood is a former Shadow Cabinet minister and adviser to Ed Miliband. He tweets as @StewartWood.