Column Road

The visibility of the past in the Digital Age

By Harry Heath

On June 8 this year Labour won the Sheffield Hallam seat at the General Election. The news wasn’t about the victor, it was about the loser. A dejected Nick Clegg looked tired and forlorn. The ex-Deputy Prime Minister, a thoughtful and articulate politician was the news, a major casualty toppled on a night of political carnage.

The winner, local man Jared O’Mara, stepped almost anonymously into parliamentary life after a night of shocks. His transition was uneventful and his subsequent appointment to the Women and Equality Committee went equally unreported. However, on 23rd October 2017 Mr O’Mara became headline news. A now controversial Guido Fawkes blog exposed homophobic and misogynistic posts he had made on social media, fifteen years previously, when he was twenty-one years of age. Mr O’Mara’s digital footprint had returned to haunt him.

Social media and political commentary was rife. For some such views were clearly part of his DNA, branded into his psyche. How had this vile man slipped through the net as a parliamentary candidate for Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party? For others he was just a young immature lad expressing some harmless banter back in his student days, what was all the fuss about? Some took a more reasoned view, wondering whether his views had changed, if his life experiences in the fifteen years following these posts had resulted in an adjusted position, and if the ability to make the transition and an understanding of that journey was actually beneficial to the Committee of which he joined in Parliament.

We will no doubt learn the true nature of Mr O’Mara’s history in the coming weeks, and how he went from expressing bigoted views in his early twenties to being an MP for the party of equality. The wider debate here is how we as a society now use and interpret an individual’s digital footprint. Is it an insight into the journey an individual has taken or an indelible scar that they must forever carry?

In 2013, the Kent Police Crime Commissioner employed Paris Brown under the title of Youth PCC. This bold plan was designed to appeal to the views and needs of young people. The seventeen-year-old Paris evidently seemed a bright and talented candidate; unfortunately for her she had a digital footprint. An examination exposed posts she had made between the ages of fourteen and sixteen that contained both racist and anti-gay terminology. The young woman was judged by her comments as a child and so became collateral damage for the political opponents of the then adult Kent PCC.

Even more like the case of Jared O’Mara was the episode concerning the online behaviour of another Labour MP, Naz Shah who had made various anti-Semitic tweets years before. This was a Guido Fawkes job once again, proving that there are politically motivated journalists whose very existence is to dig up the online behaviour of certain public figures to make political capital.

We can contrast these examples of unacceptable behaviour, rooted in the evidence of screenshots, with another case of which there was no conclusive evidence to draw on.

In 2015, Lord Ashcroft’s unofficial biography disclosed David Cameron’s membership of the Piers Gaveston Society, an elitist Oxford University Club. Ashcroft had an axe to grind with Cameron and it was his description of a certain initiation ceremony, which allegedly involved Cameron placing his honourable member in a dead pig’s mouth, that was to cause the most damage. Its motive was to undermine the then Prime Minister’s credibility by his association with a posh boy club known for its debauchery. If such an initiation took place thirty years previously it occurred long before the days of social media and smart phone technology. There was no one present able to record the occasion for prosperity and to place it indelibly onto social media for the entertainment of friends. Most importantly there was no digital footprint. Cameron’s alleged exuberance of youth remained a distant memory, relevant only to its time and place. Whatever the truth in such a bizarre tale, this luxury of leaving no trace of our pasts will not be enjoyed by the social media generation.

Unlike a criminal conviction, no element of your digital footprint is ‘time spent’. The zeal with which opponents seize upon such past indiscretions is typified by the press and the online Twitter mob. The voice of intolerance shouts loudest and there shall be no redemption; a quick scalp is a neat solution, move on. We must realise that this trend reaches far wider than individual cases, than Jared O’Mara, Naz Shah or Paris Brown.

Where the youth of previous generations were allowed the privilege of maturing during their socialisation of family life, education and then the working world, the children of Web 2.0 are held accountable for their actions as young people and can now be publicly condemned for them. Is it time that we all agree for good that the technology of around-the-clock, worldwide interaction is a positive advancement that carries many damaging side effects.

Along with cyber-crime and online bullying, our digital footprints are another inconvenience of increased visibility in the modern age, with many now rushing to deep clean their online profiles. While transparency and accountability are necessities in a truly democratic society, we must be reserved in judging a person’s character entirely by selected parts of a different era of their life.

Disagree? If so, I invite you to consider whether you hold exactly the same views today as you did in your mid-teens, and whether you would happily express any previous views you held in an interview with a potential new employer. We can’t afford to be complacent when it comes to the online forensic evidence surrounding our journey’s through life, but I happen to think we should be more thoughtful than throwing the book on occasions such as the controversy surrounding Jared O’Mara. I simply opine that we should allow others the benefit of hindsight that we would choose for ourselves.

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