ARCHIVE PIECE: The past is never dead online

PUBLISHED IN THE HERALD FEBRUARY 18

 

Social media is once again in the headlines, and the dock, as its often-pernicious influence is debated. The tragic case of Caroline Flack has seen calls for legislation, or at least tighter controls by companies providing this service, against abuse.

Meanwhile some newly elected TDs are learning a lesson already painfully absorbed by celebrities: the internet is immortal. Whatever you put up there stays there, forever.

Several big-name stars were fired from jobs, or dropped from awards ceremonies, after eagle-eyed members of the public trawled back through their tweets and posts for material deemed offensive, bigoted or otherwise verboten.

In some cases, it doesn’t matter if the sentiments were considered acceptable at that time. In an ironic twist, the users of this immortal medium are obsessed with contemporaneity. If a celebrity’s thoughts jar at all with the prevailing mood in February 2020, they’re toast. Welcome to “cancel culture”.

Now this digital archaeology has been extended to politics, though in that case, the concept has more validity. Indeed, one could argue that, in putting yourself forward for election to the national parliament, you’re not only exposing your past to scrutiny – but the public, and the system, have the right and the duty to examine it.

These are, after all, the people who will be shaping our country, drawing up legislation, making changes, forwarding one development and preventing another. They carry a hell of a lot of responsibility (and are rewarded for it very well).

So, yes, if you tweeted five years ago that Israel was responsible for bringing down the Two Towers, that’s probably relevant when the new Taoiseach is deciding whether to make you Minister for Foreign Affairs.

Actually, Israel was the subject – big surprise – of one of the more doolally post-election social media messages which got new TDs in trouble. In this case, the politician didn’t actually reiterate that old “the Jews caused 9-11” racist canard; she merely blamed “dirty tricks” by Mossad for hobbling the chances of Jeremy Corbyn last year. As one respondent dryly pointed out, it’s perplexing how this sinister, all-powerful organisation somehow allowed her to get voted in.

There have been other social media boo-boos, from candidates victim-blaming Mairia Cahill to anti-vaccination conspiranoia to unwisely triumphant chest-beating after victory. In perhaps the oddest – and most quintessentially Irish – instance, a politician got embroiled in a Twitter spat with Rory Cowan off Fair City and Mrs Brown’s Boys.

They say in public life that if you’re explaining, you’re losing. We can now update that to: if you’re slagging off the likeable Rory Cowan on social media, merely for supporting the similarly likeable Noel Rock, you’re definitely losing.

Our politicians have been caught with their pants down online in other, more recent ways. Just think of those viral videos of winning candidates lustily belting out rebel songs; hollering “Up the ‘Ra”, as if they have the slightest idea about the reality of The Troubles, having grown up in the pampered peacefulness of our republic; or crowing about “breaking” the “Free State bastards”.

Eh? The Free State? Hey, 1922 called – they want their political references back.

But it’s the sins of the past which increasingly come back to haunt public figures. Only a complete moron will keep tweeting their deranged effluvium once they’ve been elected – I know, there are a few – and most politicians will tone it down, in public at least, from here on.

As I say, though, the internet never forgets. If you typed and hit send, any site and any time, those words are now stored on a hard-drive, somewhere.

Deleting is pointless; once you’ve been rumbled, the first thing everyone else does is take a screenshot. This compounds the original crime: people now think you’re engaged in a cover-up. Which, of course, you are.

The internet is immortal. And in a strange and slightly eerie way, it makes people immortal, not just their words. People die but their online presence sometimes lingers on, a kind of digital ghost.

During the election campaign, I searched on Twitter for mentions of Noel Whelan, the brilliant psephologist and political analyst who died last year, whose contributions was sorely missed in 2020. It was a bit of a jolt to see that Noel’s Twitter page is still up. So too is that of Keelin Shanley and the aforementioned Caroline Flack. Marian Finucance’s remained online until recently.

It seems a bit weird, even unsettling, but then you think: well, what’s to be done about it? Twitter et al may feel they don’t have the right to delete someone’s digital existence, and nobody else but the person themselves can take it down. So there it remains.

Should we nominate someone to delete our social media if we die, then? Should that form part of a will? Should Twitter do it automatically once a death is registered, and how would that even work?

Oh, the complexities and confusions of modern life, where the technology of the future keeps us ever looking backwards. As William Faulkner famously wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


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