The Ms Brown affair raises some pressing issues of modern day communications. At the age of 17, it’s unlikely that many of us would have had the foresight to tailor our tweets and social media updates in anticipation of future roles and responsibilities.
The dangers of divulging too many of your private thoughts in a public sphere need no explaining. However, many are now criticising the lack of mercy shown by the press towards the former youth crime commissioner, who is not yet even old enough to vote. Another worrying aspect of this story is the challenge facing the politicians of tomorrow, as tweets and social media updates from the past are made fair game when it comes to judging a person’s character or integrity.
One of Labour’s youngest MPs recently took stick for comments added in 2006 on an elite social network called ASmallWorld, which is known as “MySpace for Millionaires”. The Shadow Business Secretary, Chuka Umunna posted “Most of the West End haunts seem to be full of trash and C-list wannabes, while other places that should know better opt for the cheesy vibe.” His misfortune may well be a valuable lesson for the future intake of younger MPs.
Of Facebook’s 1 billion users, 72% are under the age of 34, meaning that future politicians will hold a considerable ‘retrospective social footprint’ that they will have to work hard to guard against. I am sure I’m not alone in confessing to a handful of Facebook photos from a lively night out that I would rather not have been tagged in, or even a tweet or two that I had pressed ‘send’ on rather too hastily in the heat of the moment, however there are now calls for protection against such instances coming back to punish me in the future, including the European Commission proposal known as “the right to be forgotten”.
“The right to be forgotten” would give EU citizens the power to ask companies such as Twitter and Facebook to delete their data from the firms’ servers. Those organisations would then be obliged to comply unless there were “legitimate” reasons not to. It is unlikely that these protections would have been helpful to the former youth crime commissioner in this instance.
What distinguishes Paris Brown from other merely embarrassing and inappropriate social media updates is the racist and homophobic language used. Questions of the age of responsibility aside, as a youth police commissioner she should play a uniting rather than divisive role.
The secondary issue, of divulging lugubrious personal details prompts the question whether the social media habits of today’s ‘screen generation’ will change as a result to safeguard their professional futures.
Indeed, there may well be a positive sea-change as the result of future politicians detailing intimate events of yesteryear on social media. Law-makers of tomorrow will be stripped of pretence over their past, as any hypocrisy could easily be spotted. The old excuse of “I smoked, but I didn’t inhale” won’t carry much authority if old Facebook posts suggest otherwise.