The recent spate of social media gaffes offering sideshows on the election trail highlights both the need for and dangers of scrutinizing the online personas of would-be politicians, say experts.
Video footage, tweets and Facebook status updates posted to the web long before the campaign kicked off have caused headaches among all political parties and forced candidates of all stripes to abandon their bids for elected office.
The content of the archived posts ranged from the sophomoric to the offensive, causing observers to wonder how party officials could have failed to spot the red flags while assessing each candidate’s online history.
Experts say that’s because social media has still not become a vetting priority for Canada’s political parties.
“It’s fairly obvious that all concerned are not giving enough weight to social media vetting before approving anyone’s candidacy,” social media analyst Carmi Levy said in a telephone interview. “They’re not doing basic due diligence, and it’s coming back to bite them.”
Candidates wanting to run under any of Canada’s three major political parties are far from given a free ride.
General “green light” guidelines on the Liberal party website warn applicants to expect background checks, questions about their political affiliations, and probes into their personal finances. The party also requires an application fee of $1,000.
The Conservative party declined to comment on what goes into their vetting practices beyond a party spokesman’s emailed comment that said: “We have the highest standards for our candidates.”
The NDP did not respond to requests for comment.
Observers, however, say that the guidelines touched on by the Liberals understate the scope of the scrutiny that nominees for all parties must go through.
Aspiring politicians must complete rigorous and often intrusive questionnaires probing areas such as past bankruptcies, previous divorces, criminal history and old political affiliations.
Copies of those questionnaires, published in part last year by the National Post, offer striking examples.
The Conservative party asked would-be candidates if they had ever supported or agreed with groups promoting any region’s secession from Canada. The Liberals asked whether potential nominees had current matrimonial or child custody battles on their hands.
The NDP’s sample questionnaire asked applicants to disclose all blogs and social media platforms on which they maintain a presence, but exploring those myriad networks is a task that many believe is beyond the scope of Canada’s current system.
“This process is often conducted by volunteers. We don’t have the money in Canadian politics or media to do exhaustive opposition research or vetting,” said crisis management consultant Allan Bonner.
Levy said it’s next to impossible to track down the average person’s complete online profile, since activity is usually spread over multiple platforms over many years.
Recent examples of political gaffes show that controversial content can be found under nearly any online stone.
YouTube footage of former Conservative candidate Tim Dutaud making crank calls in which he pretended to be mentally disabled might not have been hard to find, but one would have had to look harder to track down the four-year-old tweets that cost Ala Buzreba her candidacy for the Liberals. Buzreba had previously told a fellow Twitter user that they should have been “aborted with a coat hanger.”
Allegedly sexist remarks from ex-Tory candidate Gilles Guibord were even more obscurely found in the comment section of the Journal de Montreal website.
Levy suspects attitudes towards online transgressions will soften somewhat over time as social media becomes more entrenched, saying next decade’s candidates may be able to weather the storms created by relatively benign social media gaffes.
University of Manitoba political communications professor Royce Koop hopes so, fearing relentless criticism of candidates’ every online move could have serious implications for political engagement.
“When we say to people, ‘if you’re going to run for office you better be completely bland and inoffensive,’ they have to start thinking of that 10, 15 years ahead of time,” he said.
“You’re going to get a certain kind of politician that maybe we don’t necessarily want. Maybe we want people that have lived in the real world, they’ve lived real lives, they’ve made mistakes, and we’re willing to forgive them for those mistakes.”