Social media is making our politicians more boring

As social media begins to mature there is a sense that the 2015 federal election was a new high-water mark for the number of unfortunate old postings by candidates and aides that surfaced over the course of the campaign.

As social media begins to mature there is a sense that the 2015 federal election was a new high-water mark for the number of unfortunate old postings by candidates and aides that surfaced over the course of the campaign.

Now that sites like Facebook and Twitter have been around long enough, more and more people – particularly those with a passion for politics – are accumulating a collection of statements they might want to take back, or at least in hindsight express in a more thoughtful and articulate manner.

In fact, an October Globe and Mail article entitled “Gaffes: When candidates accidentally tell the truth” catalogued no fewer than 20 candidates in the 2015 election who had old Facebook posts and tweets that came back to haunt them over the course of the campaign. Some resigned, while others were disavowed by their respective parties.

It will be interesting to see if the phenomenon starts to migrate north for the 2016 Yukon territorial election. Yes, it is election season again in the Yukon and the candidacy announcements are noticeably picking up pace.

The governing Yukon Party holds 12 of 19 seats in the legislature, so it has the advantage of having a lot of people who are already known quantities. It seems likely that most of its incumbents will take a crack at another term so it has few empty ridings to fill.

The NDP and, to an even greater extent, the Liberal Party on the other hand have to deal with the challenge of putting forward some fresh faces before the next election later this year while doing their best not to muck up the party message.

The lead up to an election is a challenging time for party leaders who want to stay on script. Leaders would prefer not to have to deal with any mavericks, so-called “bozo eruptions” and whatever skeletons might get dragged out of the closet.

And in a small jurisdiction with only 19 ridings every seat counts. It isn’t like federal politics where giving up on one out of 338 potential seats is unlikely to be fatal and can be viewed as the cost of containing the damage.

At this early stage of the campaign there isn’t much that a leader can do. The reality is that under the Yukon Elections Act just about anyone who has reached the age of 18 is qualified for office. Anyone can hold a news conference and declare that he or she intends to seek the nomination of a particular party in a particular riding.

Whether or not the leader and party insiders want to be associated with a particular person and his or her views is a separate question. Even if potential candidates have managed their social media profiles, they often come to politics with baggage from years in the community or pet causes that may or may not be fitting with the agenda of the party.

The party will unavoidably (and unfairly) be tainted by whoever comes out of the woodwork.

While a party leader has the authority to veto a particularly candidate, the practice is viewed negatively by many. Before going nuclear the leader will typically take a wait-and-see approach with fingers crossed that natural selection will take care of the problem.

But even if the party does a decent job vetting candidates and is willing to throw the occasional person under the bus, the Internet’s long memory is clearly making matters increasingly more complicated.

As profoundly cynical as it might sound, for a young person with hopes of a career in politics now is probably the time to start choosing your public pronouncements carefully – if you didn’t already blow it at some point in the past.

That was a lesson learned the hard way in the last election by a young Liberal candidate in the riding Calgary-Nosehill who was brought down by offensive comments she had made about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict on Twitter four years prior, when she was all of 17 years old. Her Conservative opponent, Michelle Rempel, gave her no quarter on account of her young age or the vintage of the tweets.

Yes, as much as I loathe the kind of bland, scripted political communication that we have become accustomed to, it seems to have evolved into an occupational requirement in today’s politics. Those who excel at it seem to prosper.

It is too bad in a way. Yes there are offensive statements that legitimately disqualify a person from office. But the need to stay on message has produced a generation of politicians that could easily be replaced by a recording that plays short list of sanitized talking points interspersed with the occasional predictable partisan jab set on repeat.

Believe it or not, most politicians are not nearly as boring as they sound. Get one comfortable with the idea that what they tell you is truly ‘off the record’ and you often find a new depth. Many have independent thoughts of their own: a vision for government and society that goes beyond the mundane status quo, incrementalist policies in their platform, and ideas they’d love to have an opportunity to implement but realize would be political suicide to even mull over in public.

Put the smart ones in a setting where anything they say can be thrown back in their face, and you get to listen to them drone on with the same tired lines and platitudes.

Kyle Carruthers is a born-and-raised Yukoner who lives and practises law in Whitehorse.

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