I was listening to CBC's The Current yesterday. Part Two discussed Political Vetting, leading with this: "The B.C. provincial NDP has a new 17-page disclosure form for wannabe leadership candidates, asking them for everything about their online presence, including their social networking usernames and passwords because the party wants to avoid Internet-related embarrassments mid-campaign."
The question: Are they going too far?
My question: Does anyone in politics actually understand the social media space?
Guests included Brad Levigne, the NDP's national campaign director, Yaroslav Baran, the communications director in the Conservative Party war room for the last three federal elections (now a communications consultant), and Jack Siegel, who has been involved in the vetting process as legal counsel to the Federal and Ontario Liberal Parties in the last several elections (a request for a current Conservative rep was declined).
Siegel seemed to sympathize for the "going too far" camp, noting that a certain amount of transparency/disclosure is expected, but ultimately acknowledging that vetting shouldn't have to go so far as digging into the protected areas of a potential candidate's social media activity. Levigne was, perhaps obviously, very much in favour of a strict, rigorous vetting process in order to avoid "surprises," such as the Dana Larsen incident, where the candidate's old broadcasts on Pot TV forced him to step down. Baran felt for both sides, but in my opinion leaned closer to Levigne, having been on the front lines of communication and crisis management and knowing how difficult it can be to have information surprisingly surface in the middle of a campaign.
I completely understand that a party endorsement (provincial or national) is a serious thing for all players involved, and that a certain amount of vetting (traditional background check, digital snapshot, candidate disclosure) is required, however more disturbing was discussion and reference to the social space itself. Baran (@YaroslavB) referred to social networking and micro-blogging tool, Twitter, as (paraphrase) stream-of-consciousness... a channel where people say whatever, whenever they want. Therein lies the problem.
It's a communication and networking tool, used to listen, talk and engage. Sure, during its early days (and still to a degree now), Twitter's uses and guidelines/standards of use weren't as clear as they are currently, but the same could/should be said about any communication channel. Email is still abused (spam, chain letters, inappropriate conversations via work accounts, etc.), as are the telephone (telemarketing) and snail mail (junk mail).
Social media tools and channels make it easier to listen to what people are saying. I've always believed that you shouldn't say or do anything via any media that you wouldn't want your mother, your wife or your boss to see. Use them for your vetting process. They are very effective research tools. But locking down an account or insisting on being able to access someone's data with their username and password comes across as censorship and a breach of privacy. Are you going to tap their phone? Get access to their personal email accounts? Bank accounts? Yes, they ask about your finances, but would they go so far as to monitor your banking activity? Understand the medium you're trying to monitor before you lock it down. I think we'll increasingly find more and more people unwilling to stand up and commit themselves to a political cause/party if they're not afforded some measure of trust.
Similarly, businesses that lock down the use of these social media channels are often under fire for their inflexibility and lack of vision and as a result it is likely that employees are going to stop working for companies that adopt those policies. If you set up guidelines and inform and inspire your team, time wasting becomes less of an issue. Join them in their SM endeavours. Consequently you'll be notified if your employee checks in to Casino Rama while they're supposed to be off sick.
My point? Yes, I know... it's long in coming. My point is that we should be spending more time teaching, learning and understanding the tools we use to communicate everyday. The more we understand them, the less we'll be surprised (or we'll be able to find the surprises more easily?), and we'll be more capable in dealing with those surprises. Not everyone will or should embrace them without caution, and I don't disagree that a healthy dose of skepticism and apprehension can provide accountability and aid in establishing guidelines in how people use any form of media, but don't assume the worst and don't conclude that having access precludes abuse.
Siegel acknowledged that the vetting process is a difficult one, and noted that, even discounting the social media issue, many potential candidates have refused to undergo the complete/official procedure due to its invasiveness. Seventeen pages does seem a little heavy (I wonder if there's on online process?), but these endorsements are a serious thing, so I get it. But maybe do your own legwork. Do some homework. Use the tools you're condemning to find out what potential candidates are saying online, and what millions of people (geographically and keyword filtered) are saying about them (while you're at it, use social media to assess what issues should be addressed based on real conversations rather than party policy alone). Accessing their social media profiles can't completely prevent them from "embarrassing" you/the party/themselves if they're inclined/capable of doing so.
On that note, I think I've taken this conversation far enough. There goes my political career.