Millennial Candidates: Running for Office from Your Digital Footprint
‘ll never be able to run for public office. I’ve heard people my age say this time and time again in a joking reference to the content on their social media pages. The millennial generation, specifically those of us who went through grade school during the MySpace and Facebook launches, are the guinea pigs for how growing up with social media’s self-created spotlight will in turn affect our career aspirations. For my colleagues, what will be the consequences of having unrestricted access to online public mediums at an age when we were too young to be able to fully understand the possible implications of posting that picture or tweeting that tweet? When 13-year-old me first got a Facebook account, I can confidently say that it never crossed my mind what my future employer would think about what I was posting.
As my generation grows up, some of us will inevitably aspire to run for public office. But unlike generations before us, our personal lives since we were children have been outlined online for the world, including voters, to see. According to a study done by the Pew Research Center, as of 2016 roughly 86% of Americans age 19 to 30 use at least one social media site. Chances are that right now the future president of the United States is a college student or a recent graduate just starting their career. And chances are this future president is also posting pictures on their Instagram and Facebook and sending out snapchats to their friends.
We are already seeing social media’s effect on millennial candidates. John Ossoff, the 30-year-old Democratic candidate in the special election for Georgia’s 6th Congressional District, was targeted by an attack ad featuring videos that were posted online of him dressed as Han Solo for a play and performing a parody song with his acapella group when he was an undergrad at Georgetown University. The ad attacked Ossoff for being exactly what he was at the time the videos were created, a young college student. The implication was that Ossoff was too immature to hold office, even though the videos were recorded ten years prior to his candidacy. And the scary truth is, the vidoes weren’t hard to find. All his opponents had to do was google his name.
In elections pitting millennial against Gen Xers or Baby Boomers, older candidates have the advantage of having gone through high school and college before technology, like cell phones with built-in cameras, even existed. They too were once just as young and immature as us millennials, but now as adults they don’t have a social media trail of embarrassing photos and videos that can be utilized against them in their professional careers. My guess is that that there are at least a few members of Congress whose political prospects may have ended with an embarrassing picture or post before they had even graduated from college had they grown up with today’s technology.
As millennials grow older and become the dominate generation in politics, how will campaigns adjust when most potential candidates bring with them a life-long digital footprint?
In an industry where large sums of money and time are spent carefully crafting a candidate’s image and narrative, will only those of us who avoided putting too much of ourselves online be able to successfully run for office? From pictures and posts to search histories and online purchases, voters in the future will have access to the details of candidate’s private lives that reporters and opposition today would only dream of being able to acquire. But is that a bad thing?
Social media may prove to be a powerful educational tool that gives voters the ability to see past the carefully crafted image the candidate and team of advisors have created, to the real, unfiltered version of the candidate. Candidates may be unable to polish their past away when pictures and posts provide hard evidence of who they were, or at least appeared to be online.
Perhaps social media will just further add to what campaigns already are, the ultimate reality TV show, but with a lifetime’s worth of dirt to bring up against anyone who is brave/stupid enough to put themselves under the spotlight.
Or maybe with so much information, people may become desensitized to what today are considered ‘scandals’ that severely hurt a candidate’s chances and will stop holding politicians to a higher personal standard of being perfect. Since everyone’s mistakes and embarrassing moments are plastered online, little things like an unflattering picture won’t matter as much.
I guess we’ll find out.
As a recent graduate who grew up in the social media age and has an interest in a career in politics, I debate how I should handle my online profile. I think that I’ve been mindful of what I post on social media, but I have my fair share of silly pictures of myself out there. Social media can be a powerful tool in building your personal brand, but I wonder if it would be better to stray away from committing my future self to being responsible for anything my current self posts online.
I think the best I can do is just hope the judgement of 22-year-old me doesn’t end up hurting the career aspirations of 40-year-old me.