There’s never been a more exciting time to be part of a political dirt unit. Yesterday Jeremy Hearn and Peter Killin, two Victorian Liberal candidates, withdrew over anti-Muslim and homophobic posts respectively. Labor’s Luke Creasey also landed in hot water over rape jokes he made on Facebook back in 2012.
Creasey apologised, but refused to step down. As appalling and tasteless as his posts were, his excuse — that they were made seven years ago and that his views have since developed — is, on face value, believable. But Creasey’s story is becoming increasingly common.
Social media is a goldmine for dirt units and for sections of the media more interested in scooping their rivals than asking serious questions on policy.
When should the dirt be aired out?
There’s no magic formula for determining what warrants a hit piece and what doesn’t. But context, and an understanding of how people use the internet, is key.
Some old posts are heinous and objectionable, and no length of time can erode their hurtfulness. The anti-Semitic conspiracy theories shared by Labor’s Wayne Kurnoth probably fall in that category. Others have a particular importance from more recent context. Think of Donald Trump’s now infamous Access Hollywood tape bragging about sexual assault; the outrage came in the context of his extremely long and well-documented history of misogyny.
Then there’s the issue of how old the posts are. When the comments are recent, like Heards’ Islamophobic screed from just last year, they can hardly be chalked down to old youthful silliness.
But the tactic of exposing any posts a 50-year-old editor might balk at risks making mountains out of online molehills. The posts by Victorian Greens members last year are a case in point. Nilson and McMillan’s posts — variously about shoplifting, drug use, pornography and religion — were perhaps tasteless and off-colour in a way that might shock pearl-clutching, suburban boomers. But to even moderately online young people, they would be easily recognisable for what they were: shitposting, or a kind of extremely silly, irony-laden and often provocative online post.
Also, some of them were pretty funny. Nangs (canisters of nitrous oxide which are inhaled to achieve a 30-second high), which Nilson joked about, are perfectly common shitposting fodder no matter what the Herald Sun might think.
Nothing is safe
Here’s the thing. Even if you don’t find nangs particularly funny, it’s undeniable that people in their twenties have grown up with the internet. We were dumb teenagers on the internet, and our growth from dumb teenagers to equally dumb adults is documented online in excruciating detail. As Nilson wrote after her posts became national news for some reason, screwing up online is “what normal people do”.
But now the Pandora’s Box has been opened, and any post that might offend some people could be the target of a front-page hit-piece. Why then, would any young person ever run for a political office? Everyone who has come of age in the era of social media, no matter how careful they might be with deleting posts, has a few skeletons in their online closet. It could be the problematic Facebook post you wrote a decade ago, a drunk Instagram story, or the group chat banter that went just a little too far. Nobody was thinking about their future political career when they shared that unwoke meme at 15.
Such pieces are clearly more likely to harm young candidates. Often, they are targeted at an audience with little understanding or sympathy towards online mishaps, and framed so as to maximise outrage. And the harm, particularly when the politician is early in the career, can be huge. McMillan spent the week following the Herald Sun’s piece on suicide watch. Any sensible politically engaged young person, would look at this and not bother.
It’s a shame potential blowback might deter young Australians from ever setting foot in the political arena because, now more than ever, our politics is desperately crying out for fresh voices. This election has put on full display the utter contempt with which much of Australia’s political establishment holds young people. Just yesterday, Deputy Prime Minister Michael McCormack called the record young enrolment “one of the biggest problems we’ve got in this election”. Presumably because they are worried about the prospect of a climate apocalypse, a stagnant jobs market and the prospect of never owning their own home; concerns the Coalition do not seem to share
But the current crop of dinosaurs will soon be too old to plod around the halls or Parliament, and the shitpost generation will have to step up and replace them. This next batch of politicians will inevitably all come with a chequered social media history. The dirt units and the tabloids would do well not to punish candidates for the crime of being born in the 1980s or 1990s. And any prospective politician should err on the side of caution: delete your bad posts.