In 1992, President Bill Clinton famously asserted that he “didn’t inhale” nor had he ever “broken a state law.” By 2006, not only was it known that then first-time presidential candidate Barack Obama had inhaled, but that he had done “maybe a little blow” too. In 2032, when most of us will have surpassed the minimum age to become president, and are therefore qualified to hold an important position in public office, I wonder what type of personal inquiries people will be making of our presidential candidates — if any.
You see, when we are 40 years old, the landscape of those considered “qualified” to hold important political positions will look very different than it does today, and certainly different than it did in 1992. And this will likely be the result of social media like Facebook and Twitter, which not only expose, but also record and preserve the often unwise antics of our youth.
There are more than 1-billion Facebook monthly active users worldwide, 54 percent of whom are under the age of 45. I’m confident that this percentage will grow, with more young users creating profiles every day.
I’ve used Facebook for more than five years before recently deleting it. Every single message exchange, wall-to-wall conversation and uploaded photo will be preserved on the website whether I like it or not unless I go through the process of deleting my account. This reality applies to me and the 845-million other Facebook users today.
When I think of the controversial statements or past actions which are regularly entreated to question the credibility of a political candidate, I cringe to think of what could be used against me or my peers in the future.
Because in the future, the allegations of underage drinking or drug use won’t be speculative, they’ll be concrete — in the Facebook pictures which show our underage friend drinking at a house party, in the conversation with a college buddy where drug use is confirmed and in the offensive status we posted at 3 a.m. one regrettable Thursday night. Even if we attempt to delete the incriminating evidence, there’s always a risk that someone saved them. And even if we deactivate our Facebook, the account still remains intact in case we ever change our minds.
While considering how Facebook might alter the field of future politics, it would be wrong to ignore Twitter, which has fewer users than Facebook — about 127 million — but remains a ubiquitous engine in conveying our personal thoughts or feelings. Twitter offers its users a platform to express their views no matter how vulgar, flawed, insignificant or regrettable they may be — in 140 characters or less, of course. And, like Facebook, Twitter can be a dangerous instrument of exposure and preservation.
In fact, Twitter has already proven instrumental in ruining the political career of at least one politician, former Congressman Anthony Weiner, and further injuring Sarah Palin’s political reputation. Even unintentional tweets can cause controversy, such as when an account linked to the National Rifle Association tweeted, “Good morning, shooters. Happy Friday! Weekend plans?”— the morning after the Aurora, Col. shooting took place this August.
If educated adults are making career-altering mistakes on social media sites, it’s hard to imagine the mistakes an unwitting teenager makes on those same platforms — mistakes which may very well come back to haunt them.
However, as unsettling as it is to know that every thoughtless remark or action we’ve made is preserved in virtual writing forever, we may all take solace in one fact: each of our peers is in the very same boat as we are.
By 2032, political figures most likely won’t come under fire for allegations of adolescent law-breaking or politically incorrect statements because I honestly don’t think most of us will judge the credentials of our policymakers on the negligent behavior of their youth.
That’s not to say that we shouldn’t hold our nation’s leaders to a high degree of responsible behavior. However, since we’ve grown up as the “social-media generation,” we’re wholly familiar with, if not already numb to, the types of irresponsible behavior that might discredit a future leader.
Despite the possibility that our expectations of leaders by 2032 may be different than they are currently, it remains important to expect our leaders to display exemplary behavior in the public eye, which starts with us displaying that same behavior today. So fine, I’ll take that picture down.
Sarah Rohan can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.