Can you remember everything you’ve ever posted online? Would you be ready to stand by it all, even if you can’t? Are you – apologies for the term – a millenial?
At 35, Jared O’Mara is one, just about, and could have done without a comprehensive digital footprint. Political gossip blog Guido Fawkes published a series of stories about the Labour MP on Monday, revealing that he’d posted offensive comments on forums between 2002 and 2004.
From homophobic phrases like “fudge packing” and “driving up the Marmite motorway” to sexist jokes about Girls Aloud and “fatties”, there is no doubt that the remarks he made were unacceptable, and deserved to make him lose his spot on the women and equalities committee.
There have also been reports of O’Mara making further sexist comments as recently as this year, which will no doubt make people (and his party’s whips) think twice about his claims to have changed since the posts were first written.
Away from the particular case of the Sheffield Hallam MP, however, lie some interesting questions. O’Mara is the first politician to get truly engulfed in a scandal linked to tasteless things he said as a young person online, and there is no reason to think he’ll be the last.
His story is reasonably clear-cut as what he said was offensive enough not to be debatable, and he was in his early twenties between 2002 and 2004, ergo not a child any more. Future scandals might not be this simple.
“What a lot of us forget is that the news feed wasn’t introduced until 2006, Facebook Chat (now Messenger) wasn’t introduced until 2008, and this age group’s parents definitely weren’t active on Facebook in this era,” explains Jessica Riches, a social media consultant.
“Because of this, people would regularly freely post content that they’d never post publicly now on friends’ walls – because there was no ‘private’ option, and the expectation wasn’t that it was truly public. This includes the mundane, the deeply personal and the incriminating.
“It’s a fun experiment to ‘see friendship’ with one of your oldest friends on Facebook you were close to in the 2004-2008 era and scroll back to the conversations you had before Messenger, where you’d regularly be organising meet-ups with friends and discussing relationship dramas – things you’d never consider posting publicly now. I’ve seen some where people were even arranging to buy drugs.”
For the generation that grew up between the early Eighties and early Nineties, the internet – and especially early attempts at social media – were a largely unregulated playground with few social rules.
From MySpace and MSN Messenger to blogs and forums, there was a sense of nearly intoxicating freedom, and of a place where anyone could say anything with none or few consequences.
These people, however, are now in their twenties and thirties, and the snap election this year was the first when more than a handful of them were elected to parliament.
Journalists have since then been busy with Brexit, Tory infighting and other assorted chaos – but what will happen when they have more time to delve into the past of these young parliamentarians? What will count as a story?
Among those who consider O’Mara’s offence unforgivable, there are broadly two camps: those arguing that the content of his remarks was too offensive for him to be forgiven on the spot, and those saying that someone aged around 22, as he was at the time, isn’t young enough to be able to get away with such statements.
The underlying conclusions of these positions are that, had O’Mara been younger or made tasteless jokes as opposed to straightforwardly homophobic and sexist ones, a simple apology would have sufficed.
This brings other questions to mind: how young is young enough to get away with stupid or offensive comments? Nineteen? Seventeen? Younger? Are some comments so offensive that saying them at any age would automatically bar a person from public life? Is it a sliding scale, where the older you are, the less offensive your comments need to be for you to give up hope on having a political career one day? How long ago should the comments have been made for a supposed arc of redemption to appear genuine?
No one in the media has really attempted to answer these questions yet, but they should do so sooner rather than later, and keep their changing audiences in mind – after all, a scandal only is one if it shocks the readers.
“I think it’s important to remember that as people in politics are getting younger and starting their careers with bigger potential digital footprints, so are the people holding them to account and voting for them,” Riches argued.
“While we would hope that politicians would make fewer questionable life choices than the rest of us, most people of the same generation can remember a time where we published something we shouldn’t have online.”
This idea of expansive digital footprints also weaponises the old question of what we want from our politicians, and what kind of people we hope them to be. While mindlessly posting regrettable things online as a teenager may put an early end to political ambitions, do we want our MPs to be the sort of kids who already knew at that age that their internet presence would later be scrutinised?
As Riches explains, this also brings in questions about class divides: “People being ‘groomed’ by their families to go into respected careers or politics will likely be warned from early on to be careful, and perhaps even have paid for services that help you monitor your digital footprint and delete anything incriminating. People who aren’t from as traditional political backgrounds won’t have had this guidance, so will likely have more that can be used against them.”
Gender might also become a deciding factor, as young women are considerably more likely to either willingly post or be coerced into posting personal pictures of themselves online, without knowing where they might end up.
“As I say frequently,” Riches adds, “’the tits of the prime minister of 2030 are already on someone’s phone. The existence of nudes will no doubt be a gendered issue with the potential to hugely damage the political careers of women in the future.”
There are, however, some reasons to be hopeful: this problem probably won’t last. Having witnessed the trials and errors of millennials before them, the generation after them isn’t making the same mistakes.
Penny Andrews, a teaching associate at the University of Sheffield, says her younger undergraduates seem acutely aware of the risks inherently posed by their online presence.
“They said they’ve grown up with social media and having computing lessons at least once a week through school, they were taught about cyberbullying and how you don’t say horrible things online,” she explains.
“They’re BA Digital Media and Society students, so quite savvy, but they keep the stuff they wouldn’t want to say out loud for private accounts or group chats or closed FB groups [which are] not likely to come up in a dig 15 years later unless someone held on to all the screenshots and could prove they weren’t doctored.”
This chimes in with the experiences Riches has had with young people from Generation Z, who were born in the mid-Nineties or later.
“The teenagers/people in their early 20s I’ve spoken to seem to have an innate awareness that even if you post something privately or even on an ephemeral platform, if it’s online, it can be found – whether that’s a naked selfie or a screen grab of a questionable group chat.”
When they reach the age of running for office, these people will have the millennials to thank for showing them exactly what not to do. But in the meantime, journalists and readers alike have at least a good decade of old social media scandals to look forward to.