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The New Political Tactic: Social Media Trawling

Posted: 03/05/2013 00:00

A new type of political tactic is slowly taking shape: the social media trawl. All that information we share or is shared about us - the tweets, comments, likes, photos and so on - is quickly becoming a honey pot of political point scoring and scandal. Last month, the Twitter feed of 17-year-old Paris Brown, the first Youth Police and Crime Commissioner, was found to contain some pretty stupid things she'd tweeted a couple of years ago - and she resigned.

The Facebook profile of a Ukip candidate was scoured and a photo was found of him either doing a Nazi salute; trying to snatch a phone; or impersonating a pot plant, depending on who you believe. Chuka Umunna has been criticised for his - pretty cringeworthy - comments on the networking site 'Asmallworld'. In a brilliant spoof, the Onion reported that the every potential 2040 US presidential candidate is already "unelectable due to Facebook". Our digital indiscretions are becoming fair game: I predict that each political party will soon be employing a team of modern day mudlarks to trawl opponents' social media profiles looking for dirt; and simultaneously trying to tidy up their own candidates' indiscretions. Maybe they do already.

Things could turn nasty, because misinformation is especially easy to produce. As I wrote here about an alleged tweet by the English Defence League, it is very trivial to produce fake Tweets or photoshopped images, and many seasoned experts have been fooled - recall the case of the American PhD student pretending to be a persecuted lesbian Syrian blogger. Two years ago, the News of the World had to settle out of court after making accusations of infidelity on the basis of a fake Facebook page.

Even without the dark arts, this will all get messy. It is, after all, quite difficult to make a fair and accurate judgment about a person's character or views on the basis of something they may or may not have said on a social media page three years ago when drunk or angry. The very basis of liberalism and free expression is an underlying view that people can and do change their mind: otherwise, what is the point in arguing anything out, after all? Raking through everything anyone has ever said or done - and context is usually stripped out when it's up there on a screen before your eyes - could be ossifying.

If this means people stop saying silly, nasty things online, or the truth about nasty people comes to light, then perhaps some good could come of this. But if it leads, as I fear it might, to a situation where every public figure is expected to have a managed and crafted digital persona full of 'on-message' soundbites and focus-grouped comments, or is afraid to say what they think, then politics may be about to get just a little bit more uninspiring.

 

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