In recent days, Fianna Fail Senator Lorraine Clifford-Lee, a candidate for the forthcoming bye-election in Fingal, has been the latest subject of such an expedition in which posts have been unearthed using the words ‘pikey’, ‘Traveller’ and ‘knacker’.
Unsurprisingly, she has contended it is a smear, but the problem with such social media transgressions is that the evidence is there for all to see. For journalists, it is the lowest-hanging fruit. For the subjects of offence archaeology, it is an accusation that is very hard to spin. Now Clifford-Lee is fighting for her political future.
While everybody’s online footprint is different, the position in which Clifford-Lee finds herself is, increasingly, unexceptional.
From politicians to journalists to artists, few are above trial by Twitter or whatever social platform you happened to frequent in your former life.
Examples abound, the aptly named Anthony Weiner immediately springs to mind, but less predictable casualties have included writer and commentator Toby Young, whose nomination as a non-executive director to the UK’s Office For Students, a university watchdog, came under sustained fire.
In January last year, The Guardian published extracts from some of his previous columns and past tweets, including references to the breasts of chef Padma Lakshmi from 2009, which said: “Do Padma’s breasts look bigger than normal? I think they do #tcparty.” Young resigned a week later.
US Comedian Kevin Hart had barely been anointed Oscars host in December 2018 when a trove of tweets portraying him as homophobic was unearthed. Amongst them, was this, from 2011: “Yo if my son comes home & try’s [sic] 2 play with my daughters doll house I’m going 2 break it over his head & say n my voice ‘stop that’s gay’.”
He stepped down two days after the announcement and followed up with an apology for his posts. He apologised to the LGBT community, which prompted a proclamation of support from Ellen DeGeneres, after which Hart briefly considered resuming hosting duties. However, a further backlash followed and he stepped away from the role entirely.
More recently, 20-year-old footballer Declan Rice’s career as an England player was thrown into question when a 2015 Instagram post which appeared to voice support for the IRA was found. His appointment had already been seen as controversial as he had played three games at senior level for Ireland owing to the Corkonian heritage of his paternal grandparents.
Rice mounted a successful backfield defence.
“I am aware that a poorly-expressed comment I made when I was a junior player has been circulated on social media,” Rice said in a statement. “I recognise now that my attempt to show support for my team-mates at the time could be negatively interpreted.”
England’s Gareth Southgate said: “I understand that it’s not a situation that should just be dismissed but, equally, the context, the period of time that’s passed and his age at the time is all relevant in how we should deal with it.”
Clifford-Lee isn’t the first and won’t be the last public figure whose online skeletons are subjected to a very public exhumation. But even for those not in the public eye, one’s social accounts are a treasure trove of potentially damaging information for a whole range of firms, from mortgage and credit companies to tax authorities, insurance investigators and, of course, employers.
Indeed, so great an issue is this for everyone from politicians to executives and applicants for jobs, that there is a burgeoning industry dedicated to sterilising your profile for wider consumption.
“It’s not just a problem for people who are in the public eye, it’s a problem for private citizens as well and it’s been well known for a number of years now,” says Dr Laura Toogood, founder of The Fieldmaster Group, which manages the digital footprint for high-profile individuals and companies.
“Employers are potentially trawling social media and other platforms to see what clients do online. Maybe something you shared five or 10 years ago isn’t what you would share in your role now, or doesn’t reflect you as a person.”
Of course, there is a spectrum between a social history that resembles an annotated LinkedIn profile – a compendium of professional achievements studded with the occasional humblebrag and 5k finisher photos – and one whose only personal bests are in the fields of creative vulgarity and competitive drinking.
As we all now produce content for consumption, it seems unrealistic to expect that employers should care to separate our personal and professional lives.
“If you’re in a senior leadership position, you are, to extent, carrying the brand,” says Elevateedge.ie Executive Coach Anne Caulfield. “So it’s important your values are seen to be aligning with the brand values, be that on LinkedIn, Twitter, Facebook or wherever. And it’s important you’re auditing your profiles regularly so that you’re projecting who you are, and where you are now.”
At at time when employees present as ambassadors of companies, and their unedited and uncensored views can make their way directly to the public, companies may deem staff a reputational risk.
“If they’re a professional footballer and what they’re posting matches the brand, then fine. But if you’re a senior executive, companies do, I believe, check their profiles so they’re brand aligned. In my view, people share far too much. Yes, it’s important to share your views, but there has to be a balance,” Caulfield says.
Toogood raises the complicated issue of the generational divide, where older individuals, despite possibly being more senior professionally, may be relatively new adopters of social media and therefore less alert to its codes.
“It’s fair to say the younger generation are equipped better,” says Toogood. “That’s because they’ve had to deal with it all the way from school and there’s a much greater awareness of some of the big cases which have triggered people to review the type of content published.
“Having said that, I don’t think there’s enough being done in that context. There are still young people who aren’t realising what they post online can stay there forever or be republished by third parties, and then it becomes very difficult to remove.”
Such advice is too late for Clifford-Lee perhaps, but hers is surely a cautionary tale for political consultants of all hues in advance of the next Election.
Time to get scrubbing…