Social Networking and the Future of Elections

May 31, 2012|Stephen Markley

If the 2012 election teaches young people anything, it will be that if you’re someday hoping to hold elected office, start behaving yourself now.

And by “young people”, I mean first graders. For most of us in the Facebook generation, it’s already way too late. The general election campaign between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney—still in its hot, sloggy summer days—has increasingly demonstrated that the past is not only fair game but will be vaunted, vilified, deconstructed, and debated with a fury normally reserved for all things Kardashian.

From Romney’s high school bullying to Obama once snacking on dog meat in Indonesia—this is all just a portent of what elections will turn into once my generation starts running for office. After all, we Millennials are the geniuses who decided to put every picture of ourselves ever taken while inebriated into an easily perusable on-line forum while updating our statuses and Tweeting every errant thought. I’m already kicking myself because when I decide to run for the Illinois senate, some enterprising mudslinger will no doubt go back through my Twitter profile and publicize that on April 23, 2012 at precisely 9:03 p.m. I Tweeted, “Man, the condom never breaks with the right girl #MeganFoxIsPregnant.”

Then that goofy joke will bury my entire campaign.

We don’t realize it yet, but there exists an eye-of-the-hurricane lag time for the political implications of the social networking phenomenon. Anthony Weiner was just the tip of the iceberg. With precious few exceptions, we are all documenting our lives to a totally unprecedented degree, and the type of people who will be drawn to politics in the future will have all the same qualities (extroverted, ambitious, connected, informed) as the people who have 1,200 Facebook friends, follow 5,000 Twitter accounts, and could not resist putting up YouTube videos of themselves licking vodka off the kitchen floor at college sorority parties. Never again will a politician have a forgotten relationship or any kind of secret flirtation, whether it’s with an exotic dancer or Ayn Rand’s objectivist philosophy.

In their new political-nerd classic, “We’re With Nobody” authors Alan Huffman and Michael Rejebian write about the process of opposition research and make the point that candidates are better off fessing up to embarrassing scandals before someone else discovers them. However, in the age of social media even the most minor personal embarrassments get documentation and a bullhorn. If you had any kind of normal adolescence and young adulthood, there are approximately 2.3 trillion things that would embarrass the hell out of you if Fox News or MSNBC spent a news cycle talking about them.

I was in college when Facebook blew up, the veritable front lines of the social networking revolution, and I’m betting that anyone who was around for those first heady years watched a thing or two go onto the Internet that now have them craving access to a time machine. Perhaps kids have gotten smarter, but I doubt it. The election of 2020 will be the first year that a Millennial could realistically mount a decent senatorial or presidential campaign—the kind that would garner enough national attention to get opposition researchers pouring back through on-line archives. Get ready for the future:

“Candidate X has a LinkedIn connection with a Trotskyite!”

“Candidate Y once drunk-wall-posted a man who was not his husband!”

“Candidate Z Spotified nothing but Nickelback for all of 2013!”

Perhaps this will lead us to a higher threshold for scandal. Perhaps the media, politicians, and the public will come to a détente by acknowledging that we are all cracked vessels and that the innumerable mistakes and flaws peppering our youth never tell the full story of who we are or how we hope to improve the well-beings of our fellow citizens.

Either that or the 2020 election will have hilarious competing stories about the two presidential candidates’ sexting habits. I can’t tell which future I’m rooting for.

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