Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Jared O’Mara won’t be the last MP brought low by things they said growing up online

The future will bring increasingly complex questions of acceptable behaviour.

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.

Marie le Conte is a freelance journalist.

Spudgun67 via Creative Commons/https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/
Show Hide image

It might be a pseudo science, but students take the threat of eugenics seriously

Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudo-science to bolster their political arguments.

In January, the London Student published my investigation, which showed that the controversial columnist Toby Young attended the London Conference on Intelligence, secretly held at University College London. Shortly afterwards, I mentioned to someone in a pub smoking area that I go to UCL. “Did you hear about the eugenics conference?” he asked me.

He was an international student from Africa. “I applied to UCL partly because I thought it was safer than other universities, but now I’m not so sure. I worry about how many other professors hold the same opinions.”

A protest outside the UCL Provost’s office after the article was published attracted scores of students. “I have a right to come to university and not fear for my safety,” one told the crowd, exasperated. “Nothing has been done, and that’s what really scares me.”

While hecklers derided the protest as an overreaction, students have good reason for taking eugenics seriously. UCL has a long history of support for scientific racism, beginning with Francis Galton, the Victorian polymath who, among other achievements, founded the science of eugenics. UCL’s Galton Chair in National Eugenics, which survived under that name until 1996, was first held by Karl Pearson, another ardent racial eugenicist. Pearson talked about creating a nation from “the better stocks” while conducting war with the “inferior races”, and in 1925 co-authored an article published in the Annals of Eugenics warning of the dangers of allowing Russian and Polish Jewish children into Britain. The London Conference on Intelligence was held in a building named in Pearson’s honour.

Eugenics is most closely associated in the popular imagination with fascism, and the twisted ideology of the Nazi party. Yet racial eugenics was closely linked to wider European imperialism, as illustrated by one object in the Galton collection, contributed by Pearson. Dr. Eugene Fischer’s hair colour scale is a selection of 30 different synthetic hair varieties in a tin box, a continuous scale from European to African. Fischer’s work was used in the early 20th century by Germany to ascertain the whiteness of Namibia’s mixed-race population, even before it was used by the Nazis to design the Nuremburg Laws. In apartheid South Africa, Afrikaans researchers used his tools as late as the 1960s.

Its importance to the imperial project meant that eugenics enjoyed widespread support in British scientific and political establishments. Galton’s Eugenics Society, set up to spread eugenicist ideas and push for eugenic policies, had branches in Birmingham, Liverpool, Cambridge, Manchester, Southampton and Glasgow, drawing hundreds of academics to their meetings. It was a movement of the educated middle class, including leading progressives such as John Maynard Keynes, Marie Stopes and the Fabians. Society presidents hailed from the universities of Edinburgh, Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and UCL.

With this history in mind, it is easier to understand why students take the UCL eugenics scandal so seriously. Science journalist Angela Saini, who has been researching the history of race science for her upcoming book, argues that the problem lies in the co-opting of pseudoscience for political purposes. “These people are on the fringes, they’re not respected in mainstream academia,” she says. “The problem is when people like Toby Young come in from outside and use these studies to promote their own political agenda.” (Young said he attended the conference purely for research).

The rise of the far-right in Europe and America also means that the tolerance afforded to racist pseudoscience is not a purely academic question. Today’s white nationalists and neo-Nazis make extensive use of racist pseudoscience to bolster their political arguments.

Our investigation into the London Conference on Intelligence uncovered the involvement of at least 40 academics from at least 29 different universities in 15 different countries. Among these was the Oxford academic Noah Carl, a postdoctoral researcher in the social sciences at Nuffield College, who has spoken twice at the London Conference on Intelligence. Carl has also written several papers for Emil Kirkegaard’s OpenPsych, which include two looking at whether larger Muslim populations make Islamist terrorism more likely, and one suggesting that British stereotypes towards immigrants are “largely accurate”.

One external reviewer responded to the last paper by stating that: “It is never OK to publish research this bad, even in an inconsequential online journal.” Nevertheless, the paper was featured by conservative US website The Daily Caller, under a picture of Nigel Farage’s “Breaking Point” poster. The far right European Free West Media cited the paper to claim that “criminal elements are represented by certain ethnic groups”, and on the blog of a far-right French presidential candidate under the headline “Study validates prejudices”. It even ended up on InfoWars, one of the most popular news websites in the USA, and can be found circulating on far-right corners of Reddit. The fact that Carl is linked to Oxford University was mentioned frequently in the coverage, providing legitimacy to the political opinions presented.

Another contributor to the London Conference on Intelligence was Adam Perkins of King’s College London, whose book The Welfare Trait proposed that “aggressive, rule-breaking and anti-social personality characteristics” can be “bred out” of society by reducing child support for those on the lowest incomes. Perkins actively engaged with far-right media outlets in promoting his book, appearing in hour-long interviews with Stefan Molyneux and Tara McCarthy. Molyneux doesn’t “view humanity as a single species because we are not all the same”, and argues that “ordinary Africans were better off under colonialism”. McCarthy was banned from YouTube for alleging a conspiracy to commit “white genocide”, and supports deporting naturalised citizens and “killing them if they resist”. Perkins himself attracted criticism last year for tweeting, alongside data from Kirkegaard, that Trump’s Muslim ban “makes sense in human capital terms”.

Perkins is not the first KCL academic to use his platform to promote contested science in the far-right press. In the 1980s, the Pioneer Fund supported the work of Hans Eysenck, whose work has been credited by his biographer with helping to “revive the confidence” of “right-wing racialist groups” such as the National Front by providing an “unexpected vindication from a respectable scientific quarter”. The original mandate of the Pioneer Fund was the pursuit of “race betterment”; it is considered a hate group by the US civil rights group the Southern Poverty Law Center. KCL did not respond to a request for comment.

An association with a high profile university can help bigots to legitimise their beliefs, but the infiltration of mainstream academia by eugenicists is even more complex than this.

After we exposed his involvement with eugenicists, Toby Young pointed out that the conference at which he actually spoke, that of the International Society for Intelligence Research (ISIR), was “super-respectable” and attended by “numerous world-renowned academics”.

He is entirely correct. The ISIR is home to many great scientists, and its journal Intelligence is one of the most respected in its field. Yet Richard Lynn, who has called for the “phasing out” of the “populations of incompetent cultures”, serves on the editorial board of Intelligence, along with fellow director of the Pioneer Fund Gerhard Meisenberg, who edits Lynn’s journal Mankind Quarterly. Two other board members are Heiner Rindermann and Jan te Nijenhuis, frequent contributors to Mankind Quarterly and the London Conference on Intelligence. Rindermann, James Thompson, Michael Woodley of Menie and Aurelio Figueredo, all heavily implicated in the London Conference on Intelligencehelped to organise recent ISIR conferences. Linda Gottfredson, a Pioneer Fund grantee and former president of the ISIR, famously authored a letter in the Wall Street Journal defending Charles Murray’s assertion that black people are genetically disposed to an average IQ of “around 85”, compared to 100 for whites.

The tolerance afforded to eugenicists threatens the reputation of respectable scientists. Stephen Pinker, the world-renowned cognitive psychologist, spoke at last year’s ISIR conference. Another speaker at the conference, however, was the aforementioned Emil Kirkegaard, a “self-taught” eugenicist who has written a “thought experiment” which discusses whether raping a drugged child could be defended, and whose research into OKCupid made international headlines for its “grossly unprofessional, unethical and reprehensible” use of personal data.

Saini spoke to Richard Haier, editor-in-chief of Intelligence, about the involvement of Lynn and Meisenberg. “He defended their involvement on the basis of academic freedom,” she recalled. “He said he’d prefer to let the papers and data speak for themselves.”

Publishing well-researched papers that happen to be written by eugenicists is one thing, but putting them in positions of editorial control is quite another. “Having researched Lynn and Meisenberg, I fail to understand how Intelligence can justify having these two on the editorial board,” Saini said. “I find that very difficult to understand. Academic freedom does not require that these people are given any more space than their research demands – which for a discredited idea like racial eugenics is frankly minuscule.” I contacted the ISIR but at time of publishing had received no response.

UCL has published several statements about the London Conference on Intelligence since my investigation. In the latest, released on 18 January 2018, the university said it hoped to finish an investigation within weeks. It said it did not and had not endorsed the conference, and had formally complained to YouTube about the use of a doctored UCL logo on videos posted online. UCL’s President described eugenics as “complete nonsense” and added: “I am appalled by the concept of white supremacy and will not tolerate anything on campus that incites racial hatred or violence.” UCL management has also agreed to engage with students concerned about buildings being named after eugenicists.

UCL’s statement also stressed its obligation “to protect free speech on campus, within the law, even if the views expressed are inconsistent with the values and views of UCL”.

Yet there is a direct link between the tolerance of eugenicists in academia and the political rise of the far-right. Journals and universities that allow their reputations to be used to launder or legitimate racist pseudo-science bear responsibility when that pseudo-science is used for political ends. As one UCL student put it: “This is not about freedom of speech – all violence begins with ideas. We feel threatened, and we want answers.”

Ben van der Merwe is a student journalist.