Every person who didn't grow up with the internet has at some point turned to a friend and said "I'm so glad [insert social media network] wasn't around when I was in high school." I didn't get Facebook until my last year of university, after I cleared the phase in which I drank coolers and tweezed off most of my eyebrows. By the time I signed up for Twitter in 2009, I was working my first journalism job and no longer thought my break-up poetry was worth sharing. If I ever go into politics, no member of the opposition can dig up that haiku in which my heart explodes like the Chernobyl core and call me an insensitive bigot.
No such luck for Ala Buzreba, the 21-year-old Liberal candidate from Calgary who pulled out of the federal election last week after her teenage tweets were re-circulated by a self-described "stanch conservative." Granted, this was not breakup poetry. The 16-year-old sent out politically incorrect tweets about how her new haircut made her "look like a flipping lesbian!!" and more troubling, used violent language to express her politics."Your mother should have used that coat hanger," she wrote to a pro-Israel account that expressed anti-Palestine sentiments. "Go blow your brains out you waste of sperm. #racist #asshole #bigot," she wrote to a Twitter account that has now been deleted.
After the tweets surfaced, Buzreba apologized on social media and stepped down. I in no way condone Buzreba's views. But I don't think her online teenage behaviour should haunt her adult life.
Policymakers have recently sought to regulate the long shadow cast by social media slip-ups. In Europe and California, laws now exist that enable people to take digital erasers to their online activity, deleting stains we once considered permanent. But rather than empower individuals to purify their online personas, our culture needs to become more tolerant of a generation's habit to airs its flaws online.
Take a second and remember what you were like in high school. The beliefs you held. The way you expressed those beliefs. Your general attitude toward authority. Sure, you might not have been urging Israelis to get abortions, but armed with a Twitter account, you might have fired off some radical thoughts. There are no shortage of these stories, from the young lady who was fired before her first day at work for tweeting "Ew I start this f*** a** job tomorrow" to the teen who lost her job at a movie theatre after posting racist tweets in the wake of the Charleston shootings. But whether bigoted or bone-headed, there's no reason to believe these youth will carry their attitudes or beliefs into adulthood.
The fact that teenagers aren't known for sound judgment is why youth offenses are often scrubbed from criminal records. Policymakers are starting to apply that logic to the digital world. UK ministers have backed a campaign called iRights, that calls for anyone under 18 to be able to edit, delete and ask others to delete any online content that contains "errors of judgement, unhappy experiences and attitudes that were the product of immaturity." This year, California passed a similar law for minors known as the "eraser button." And, of course, the European Union passed the creepily named "right to be forgotten" law last year, which allows anyone to ask a search engine to remove links that contain inaccurate or irrelevant info about themselves (the pages, however, are not removed from the internet). So far, there are no such policies in Canada.
While the principle behind these laws is admirable -- that you shouldn't pay for a stupid tweet for your entire life -- the ability to revise one's online history is problematic. There's the obvious problem that these privacy measure infringe on freedom of information. But the biggest issue with these laws is that they run counter to how young people behave on the internet today. A recent study by Ask.fm found that 79 per cent of teens rarely regret what they post online, despite the fact that many probably should. I cringe when I look back at some of my more candid Facebook statuses, but for today's teens, social media platforms are pages in their public journal. The newer platforms such as Snapchat, where posts disappear 10 seconds (unless they are screengrabbed) tempt users to be even more divulgent. As young people become comfortable online, they likely won't have the foresight or desire to erase their more risky moments of self-expression.
Rather than giving young people the tools to censor themselves, our culture should become more permissive of their digital mishaps. That doesn't mean Buzreba shouldn't have pulled out of the election - given the severity of her tweets, she probably had to. But when she applies for jobs down the line, employers should not assume she's a foul-mouthed anti-Semite. Britain's youngest MP, 20-year-old Mhairi Black, said some colourful things as a teenager on Twitter that her opponents gleefully dug up during her campaign ("Smirnoff Ice is the drink of gods - I cannae [sic] handle this c--- man!") They proved she was once an adolescent, not that she couldn't be an ace politician.
During an age in which babies play with iPads before they learn to walk, we shouldn't be surprised or put off when a person's social media history reflects their growing pains. As more people who understand what it's like to regret a hormone-fuelled tweet rise to positions of power, work culture will hopefully become more tolerant of social media gaffes. There will be no point in digging up someone's social history to shame them, because chances are they could just as easily shame you right back.
*This column previously appeared in the Ottawa Citizen
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