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20 August 2020

Should we report on the social media profiles of politicians’ children?

Over the last year, the children of politicians have voiced their opposition to their parents’ views on TikTok and other platforms. But should the media cover the subject?

By Sarah Manavis

Claudia is like many teens of her generation. She’s political. She’s online. She posts dances and lip-syncs on TikTok. She’s left wing and she’s a prolific poster; her Instagram mostly features memes and selfies. But Claudia is also different from her peers. 

Almost all of her tweets go viral: she has more than 200,000 followers. On Instagram, she has 84,000 followers and her audience is growing fast. Her fanbase is eager that she set up an account on Cameo, the app that allows users to pay to receive personalised messages “from their favourite celebs”. And that’s because Claudia is the daughter of Kellyanne Conway – the hard-right political figure and one of Donald Trump’s closest advisers. 

Claudia Conway has become a particular media obsession in recent months, since beginning to speak out against her mother’s right-wing views. She’s done interviews with feminist media outlets such as Jezebel and receives tabloid coverage every time she sends a snarky left-leaning tweet. A recent example of widespread reporting came when she tweeted that she wanted to work for Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the socialist Democratic congresswoman. It’s clear Conway enjoys the attention she’s given, and although her online behaviour can sometimes feel rather staged or forced, it’s hard to argue the story isn’t interesting. But the media treatment Conway receives makes her seem like a 30-year-old when, in fact, she’s only 15. 

Over the past 18 months, and particularly the past six, there’s been a surge in teen visibility owing to social media (and TikTok in particular). Child celebrities no longer emerge from television or films – where contracts are signed and protections are put in place – but from a number of different platforms, often unmonitored and with the potential to access even larger audiences. With that increased visibility comes the question of how the media should report on the way these famous kids behave and interact online. But within that moral dilemma, an even trickier grey area has been born: what are the ethics of covering the children of political figures, especially when they oppose their parents’ views?

In the UK, this question surfaced in April when the daughter of a prominent Conservative minister had her TikTok discovered. On her account, which contained drug references and sexual jokes, she actively criticised the Conservative government to her 18,000 followers. Nowhere on her account did it say her name, but she was recognisable from the occasional newspaper coverage she’d received over the years. And upon the discovery of her account, her videos were shared all over Twitter, with users contrasting her conduct with that of her parents. 

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At the time, many readers cited a public interest defence: her father’s inability to manage what was said in his own household might have revealed an element of hypocrisy in the government’s tough approach to social issues such as drugs. Others noted that there was information shared on her TikTok account that became mainstream news, such as her father having received special permission to have his daughter tested for Covid-19. But many others wondered if the whole affair was simply a little gross. Should a bunch of adults be poring over the minutiae of a teenage girl’s social media account? Months on, even after other politicians’ children have had their social media accounts discovered, we’re no closer to a clear answer on where to draw the line.

Charlotte Dewar, the chief executive of the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO), says this is becoming an increasingly prevalent problem (although IPSO itself has not ruled on any relevant cases). “More and more, children of well-known figures are interacting with wider audiences through social media,”  she says. “This presents interesting challenges for journalists, who must think carefully about how the information might affect a child’s privacy or welfare.” 

Dewar explains that the Editors’ Code guidelines allow for a small amount of wiggle room – a grey area where, if a story is in the public interest, it can override the guidelines that encourage the media to simply not involve public figures’ children. “[The Editors’ Code] also says the fame, notoriety or position of a parent or guardian cannot be the sole justification for publishing details of a child’s private life,” she adds.

The grey area is where most of the media will find themselves landing. What justifies reporting on a child’s social media account? Is it when they share information about having taken a coronavirus test, at a time when some NHS front-line staff are unable to access testing? What if a child’s account revealed a politician had broken lockdown rules? The more you consider these problems, the more questions arise: to learn this kind of information, you’d have to watch these children’s profiles regularly – is that an invasion in and of itself?

The age and online availability of the child also raise questions: is there a difference between writing about a 12-year-old’s account as opposed to a 17-year-old’s? What if the teenager in question is a bona fide social media star? What if they, like Claudia Conway, already have tens of thousands of followers? On this last point, Hacked Off, the campaign for a “free and accountable press”, says coverage can be justified if the account’s audience is public and sizeable.

“Our view is that children’s privacy should be protected, including in their social media use, as a default,” says head of communications Sara Badawi, “[but] that position may be overridden in some cases such as, for example, if material has been published to a wide audience on social media. The distinction to be made is between a child, famous or otherwise, publishing something on a Facebook profile to 300 friends, and between a child who has 50,000 Twitter followers sharing something on their account.”

Badawi says these guidelines should also apply when a child diverges from their parents’ views. “So if Jacob Rees-Mogg’s young child posted on Facebook to 200 friends that she/he was a socialist, it would be unethical in our view to cover that social media content. 

“If the child then told a newspaper or communicated the same information in a way to deliberately reach a wider audience, then that would be legitimate to cover, of course.”

But even with this guidance, some cases are difficult to navigate, as an ever-growing number of political figures’ children start using social media. There will be cases where the child has, say, 4,000 followers on TikTok or Instagram: what is the threshold for privacy? Can one really be determined? 

In cases such as Claudia Conway’s, it’s clear the subject has an eagerness for media attention. In the case of the minister’s daughter who went viral in April, her TikTok account was largely wiped (whether of her own volition or her parents’ encouragement is unclear). Her account remains public, but a new level of caution is palpable; an awareness that she’s no longer just a teenager, but a figure of public interest. 

This is a debate that will only grow over time. And the answers to the questions we refuse to ask will only become more pressing the longer we ignore them. But when our guts, or at least many of our guts, are telling us that the obsession surrounding these children feels nauseating, it might be worth trusting that instinct. And even when media coverage becomes normalised, as in the case of Claudia Conway, we should perhaps question whether it was right to start obsessing in the first place. 

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