Throughout modern history innovations in the way that we communicate with each other have had a profound impact on the political landscape. The emergence of the print media, the telegram, radio and television have all revolutionised the way that politicians operate. Today the internet and twenty-four hour news organisations mean they must always stay on message and never switch off. This is in stark contrast to previous eras. In a time before the majority of households owned a television, Labour Prime Minister Clement Atlee was asked by journalists if he had anything to say to the nation as he returned from a foreign trip. As he stood on the runway his response was a stern “no.” Imagine the reaction if this had come from David Cameron or Tony Blair. Atlee was a pre-eminent figure of the twentieth century but sad fact is that he would not have stood a chance today.
The latest chapter in the relationship between politics and technology has concerned the emergence of social media networks such as Facebook and Twitter. Politics became consumerised decades ago but technological innovation has helped develop this further and has brought about a deeper personalisation of politics. Now politicians can communicate on a more direct level and disseminate their message more effectively. A good example is Sarah Palin. With over four million combined followers, Palin has been able to use Twitter and particularly Facebook to hone her message, publicise her brand and dominate the headlines.
For all the good that social media can provide, what impact could it have on tomorrow’s politicians? Facebook and Twitter store a wealth of data, such as your thoughts and opinions, who you are friends with, what groups and pages you ‘like’, relationship histories and photographs. In other words it provides an easily accessible catalogue of what you have done, what you have said and who you have said it to. Tomorrow’s politicians may well find themselves having to explain away a photograph taken on a stag-do, a particularly venomous status update or a retweet from a once credible but now distinctly out of vogue character (David Starkey, anyone?). It is not unreasonable to expect that one of your friends or followers with an axe to grind could draw fleet street’s attention to an embarrassing moment from your past. Additionally, tomorrow’s ‘journalists’ could be hacking into your Facebook account rather than your voicemail.
Although it may seem like a trivial point, the dangers are real. In 2005 a photograph of George Osborne, who was then leading David Cameron’s campaign to become the Tory Party leader, was forced to defend a photograph of himself posing with a known prostitute. Although he strenuously denied it, there was also allegations that the white powder seen in the photograph was cocaine. The photo was taken when he was in his early twenties – long before the Chancellor entered politics. However, the image came back to haunt him and threatened his career. Given that embarrassing photographs are now more accessible than ever before, how long will it be before Facebook or Twitter cuts short a young politician’s promising career?