Here’s something that is bound to make you feel old: Twitter is now old enough that there are people for whom tweeting is a youthful indiscretion. This week, Ala Buzreba, a 21-year-old Liberal candidate, felt compelled to give up her candidacy because of intemperate things she wrote on Twitter four years ago. Conservative researchers found the tweets, and the great thing about tweets, from the point of view of an oppo researcher, is that you don’t have to do very much research to dig them up. (Update 1: Sheila Gunn Reid, who brought the tweets to public attention, points out that she is a private citizen and my choice of words made it sound like she’s a professional opposition researcher; she is not.)
Update 2: The original version of this post didn’t mention Buzreba’s most controversial tweet, though, honestly, if I’d wanted to cover up for her, I don’t think I’d have linked to the article where her mean tweets are quoted. Still, it’s a fair criticism. So here it is, all the way from ancient 2011.
One thing this controversy demonstrates, of course, is that there’s very little principled opposition to political correctness and apology culture, at least in politics. A lot of articles recently have pointed out how dangerous it is that every statement on Twitter can be used to ruin someone’s life and career, regardless of context or mitigating circumstances. Many of these pieces are about “PC” as a tool used by the left to stifle the right, and they have a point—but here we have Conservatives using it as a tool to embarrass a Liberal candidate. (One of the tweets that got Buzreba in trouble wasn’t even an insult to other people, as some of her other tweets were; it was a joke about how she looks “like a flipping lesbian” with a short haircut. Using an offhand stereotypical joke against someone is often denounced as an example of PC culture.) Public statements are a weapon, and neither side is prepared to disarm. But politicians don’t really think it’s wrong that a few tweets can hurt someone’s career. They just think it’s wrong for their side.
But, accepting that everyone’s public statements will always be fair game, Buzreba’s fate shows why Twitter can look particularly embarrassing on your permanent record. As we all know, and as Buzreba admitted in her inevitable apology, teenagers are even more likely than adults to say stuff without thinking (not that adults are saints, just that we’ve been beaten down by life and we’re more timid). Twitter, which encourages short, pat responses to everything, is perfect for someone who wants to “engage” with people by using one-line insults like “go blow your brains out.”
We’ve been leaving a permanent record online for a long time now, but most of what we said in the past was in longer forms—usenet postings, blog postings, blog comments—where we could qualify what we said, or bring some kind of nuance to it. Someone called out on a nasty Tumblr post can sometimes point to a line in that post that qualifies the statement, softens it. And even when you try to take a small part of a longer post out of context, it’s rarely as ferocious or as generalized as a 140-character tweet tends to be. A tweet is a stand-alone thing, and although the “Twitter essay” has been created as a way of making longer and more nuanced statements in that format, it still winds up being a collection of short, punchy, non-nuanced statements. Twitter’s power comes from its ability to say one thing in the harshest terms possible, which means a tweet from the past can portray you in the harshest possible light.
The problem with playing gotcha with people’s tweets is that it almost discourages people from growing and changing. Buzreba’s tweets were an example of how people who use Twitter can sometimes dehumanize or insult people they disagree with; that’s certainly a problem—but she’s not the same person she was then; she is, or was, running for public office, engaging with the messy real world outside of Twitter.
If we say that saying nasty things on Twitter disqualifies you for public office, then we’re actually encouraging the bad effects of Twitter, because that discourages people from moving beyond the virtue performance and smugness of Twitter. Buzreba may have grown beyond that. But if we hold someone’s Twitter performance against him or her forever, we’re not giving him or her much incentive to do better.
Because, as Twitter gets older, another thing we’re going to see more often is people growing out of their Twitter roles. People who are mean on Twitter often turn out to be much more complicated in person, as The New Republic found this year in talking to the “Cancel Colbert” activist Suey Park. Some Twitter trolls may be insulting people for the fun of it, but others will learn to use their time more productively—if we let them.
But if we say someone’s tweets are to be held against them forever, even if they come from a younger, less mature version of that person, we might be contributing to the toxic Twitter culture we like to complain about. We’re saying, in effect, that you might as well just play your Twitter role forever, never growing out of it, because we’ll never give you the chance to do better. Basically, we’re shaming people for having been part of the online shaming culture in the past. And that just ensures the shaming culture will continue to thrive.