Decades-old games of racist dress-up may have destroyed multiple political careers this past week, as news broke that not one but two of Virginia’s top elected officials — Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark R. Herring — had appeared in blackface years ago. Though neither has resigned, the message in the backlash has been clear: Actions have consequences, and old racist yearbook pictures can and will be used to hold public figures to account. Others may soon learn that the hard way: On Thursday, the Virginian-Pilot reported that the state Senate majority leader had edited a 1968 yearbook that “features a host of racist photos and slurs, including blackface.”
Soon after I joined Facebook as a high school freshman in 2006, I received a stern warning from my parents and my school’s guidance counselors: Everything you post on the Internet is there forever. If you want to eventually get into college and have a job, you should be careful what you put online. Theoretically, the things we did online as kids might keep us from realizing our adult goals. The University of Chicago warns students that social media posts can hurt their employment prospects, since “people you’ve never met can view those postings and judge you for them.” The Wall Street Journal similarly writes that “companies are scouring job candidates’ online personas for racist and other red-flag comments.”
The corollary to this is that, while boomer and Gen-X politicians may have pasts full of ugly secrets that are nevertheless difficult to uncover (such as yearbook entries), millennial aspirants to office have chronicled their whole lives in timelines that can go back decades. “Such is the challenge facing millennials, the first generation who came of age online. Our individual evolution from pre-teens to professional adults is preserved for all to see,” the Financial Times wrote last year. If Northam can be endangered by a single yearbook page, then there must be something in millennials’ capacious feeds that would sate even the hungriest opposition researchers.
Our parents needn’t have worried. We’ve always known more about managing appearances than older generations ever will. Having grown up with the Internet, we knew that the things we put online were potentially permanent and that, inevitably, someone was watching. We internalized its omnipresent logic of surveillance, crafting our behavior and our virtual selves in accordance with the knowledge that someone, somewhere might one day judge us. Far from dooming us, our comfort with social media might make us better political candidates.
It’s true that the supposed advent of cancel culture — a climate of political correctness that punishes (or over-punishes, in the views of some) missteps, even ancient ones — has arguably validated our parents’ concerns, demonstrating that you can get called out for anything at any time. Kevin Hart surrendered his post as the host of this month’s Academy Awards because of years-old homophobic tweets, for instance. And a Trump judicial nominee withdrew in 2017 after journalists discovered old forum posts in which, among other things, he defended “the first KKK.”
But even if similar examples become more common, it seems likely that millennials will represent a disproportionately small share of them. A decade ago, before people commonly excavated each other’s digital skeletons, millennials were already seemingly savvier than our elders when it came to our online lives. We took precautions like locking down our Facebook accounts — limiting the visibility of our posts to people we actually knew — and generally being self-censorious on social media. I didn’t post pictures of myself at parties, for example, on the off-chance that some prospective employer really might dig them up later. Millennials are mocked for taking selfies or posting pictures of our meals, but those habits speak to our interest in crafting an image of our lives for the people who are already watching — and sometimes waiting to pounce.
Already, most younger people ignore Twitter and Facebook’s prompts for public disclosure (“What’s happening?” “What’s on your mind?”), choosing instead to interact with social media platforms in less permanent, often more private ways. The social media of more recent years is built to disappear. Snapchat and Instagram Stories (with 186 million and 400 million daily active users, respectively) are ephemeral by design: Posts on either platform are viewable for 24 hours before being deleted automatically.
In these formats, users document the mundane aspects of their lives, like what they ate for lunch or the concert they’re attending . Those who still share information about their personal lives increasingly do so in private forums, like closed Facebook groups. Today, on the rare occasions I check Facebook, it’s to look at the “memories” feature, which I use to delete pictures or posts I’ve made or been tagged in; I decided that it’s not in my best interest to let a tech giant that plays fast and loose with its users’ data privacy have access to material I published between 2006 and 2018. It’s an option that obviously isn’t available to those who once shared ugly truths about themselves in yearbooks.
Millennials are also aware of the other reasons to pare back the amount of data we hand over — not least of which is Facebook’s demonstrated recklessness with its users’ personal information. Fearing they might be castigated for — or maybe just shamed by — their own online archives, some users are opting to delete their old tweets entirely.
Of course, not all young people have heeded the early admonitions about sharing. Shortly after Jared O’Mara, then 35, was elected to the British Parliament in 2017, reporters dug up some of his writing on Internet forums from about 15 years before, in which the future lawmaker made sexist and homophobic remarks. O’Mara was subsequently suspended from the Labour Party and has since resigned from its ranks. Other examples are more innocuous: Gen-Xer Beto O’Rourke was widely mocked for live-streaming his visit to the dentist — exactly the kind of oversharing that millennials supposedly engage in.
But we are not likely to see many missteps of this kind from my generation, and the common wisdom that constant digital surveillance will make it harder for us to run for office looks dubious. Instead, growing up with an understanding of the Internet’s immutability may make us more scandal-proof than our predecessors.
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