What do Jeremy Corbyn, Stormzy, film director James Gunn and former Gay Times editor Josh Rivers all have in common? Answer: in the last year or so, they’ve all been publicly shamed for things they’ve posted online in the past. They’ve all been victims of the lazy new political attack technique: the digital mudrack.
One of the more interesting changes in politics is the fact most of us now have a public record of every idiotic thing we’ve ever tweeted, posted, uploaded or said. This, of course, is a giant honey pot for political research teams, time-squeezed journalists and the endless horde of social media users who shark around the net looking for reasons to be outraged. An embarrassing drunk post, an off-message tweet before you were famous, a sexy selfie – it’s all fair game. A decent sized scandal doesn’t even require your direct involvement, either. Garbage posted by your anonymous online supporters (who might also be opponents pretending to be supporters – who knows?) on your Facebook page – whether it’s Boris Johnson’s or Momentum’s – can also do the trick. This is bottom of the barrel stuff, but there’s always enough angry people to stir it up.
I understand why this sometimes makes sense, of course. When you are, say, leader of the opposition, your previous public utterances deserve some scrutiny. And sometimes digital mudracking has the benefit of uncovering powerful people’s motives and prejudices. But I’d suggest that’s only in a minority of cases. And this technique is slowly colonising news cycles, which are getting clogged up with daily outrage-denial-apology dramas. Worse, it’s storing up problems for the broader health of our public debate. Developing the faculty to think for oneself requires that people say controversial things, make mistakes and learn from them. The ability to forget is an important part of that, because changing one’s mind is how we mature and grow. It’s harder when you’re tied for eternity to some half-baked old opinion. In addition to the problem of embarrassment and shame, chances are you’ll also contradict yourself at some point. It’s practically impossible not to, because most serious people change their minds over the years. But hypocrisy in politics is a cardinal sin: if you go online you’ll find plenty of furious users right now complaining that in 2012 Liam Fox actually said this but now he’s saying that, and so on. You too, in the growing taste for hypocrisy exposing tweets that go like this: ‘Liberals: [X]. Also Liberals: [something that contradicts X]’. I can’t bear that stuff, but it’s always furiously shared.
If we keep on with this, not only will it be mind-numbingly tedious, more and more people will conclude it’s safer just to never say anything. When the facts change, Maynard-Keynes might now say, I delete my old posts. This is not a good environment for the development of healthy, thinking adults. In the end it leads us to a tedious world in which sensible people won’t dare say anything. Perhaps in future every public figure will be expected to have a carefully managed digital persona packed with dreary, on-message sound bites: a wasteland of blandness and vapidity. In this world, even people with a modicum of edge will be lionised as ‘straight speakers’ even when they’re not. This paragraph started as a prediction, but it is, of course, simply a description of what’s already happening.
Given that this will obviously not stop, I can only hope that people get so bored of digital mudracking that they become more forgiving of the people who’ve been exposed. To err is to be human, after all. If you’re online long enough, everyone is a hypocrite, a liar, a flip-flopper or a snob. This being the case, we might as well just accept it.