Old tweets can be deadly for rookie politicians. Journalists mine them for stories. Alt-right trolls strip away their context to weaponize them. They’ve become thorns in the side of comedians, athletes and, most recently movie director James Gunn. And with election season around the corner, it’s a matter of time before we see a political campaign derailed by a problematic tweet.
But old tweets, even bad ones, aren’t an unsolvable problem for today’s political candidates. If you handle your social media mistakes well, it could wind up helping you.
“What was once considered a campaign-ending sin are more easily rebranded as ‘authenticity’ in the age of Facebook,” says Sonia Van Meter. “These sins can help humanize candidates.”
Van Meter is a partner at Stanford Campaigns, a Democratic opposition research firm based in Austin, Texas. Part of her job is finding vulnerabilities, both in her clients and their opponents. Sites like Twitter and Facebook are perfect for discovering personal faults. Researchers follow social media footprints to see if a candidate flip-flopped on a key campaign issue, posted compromising pictures or favorited unsavory posts.
“It’s extremely important to review social media,” Van Meter says. “Even noncontroversial posts and pictures can feed into a potentially negative attack.”
Anything you post can be used against you, but being honest about your internet past can turn the narrative around. By admitting and owning mistakes, candidates can present themselves as ordinary people who screwed up online—an eminently relatable quality. As vicious as the internet can be, it reacts favorably to an honest apology. Just ask Questlove or Chris Hemsworth.
“Of course people’s positions change over time,” Van Meter says. “We’re not perfect from the jump, and the internet understands that.”
Social media scouring will become more prevalent as millennials run for office in larger numbers this year and beyond. Anyone under 30 has broadcasted their entire lives on the internet, from embarrassing middle school statuses to beer-pounding college photos. You can almost write the cringeworthy Fox News headlines in advance: “City council candidate’s keg standing past revealed” or “State senator ‘blazed it’ on April 20th.”
Still, Van Meter sees obvious political benefit in millennials’ familiarity with social media. They know the language of the internet and how to wield it—28-year-old Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez just provided a masterclass in using Twitter and Facebook (as well as IRL mobilization) to defeat a 10-term incumbent outspending her by millions.
Millennials also understand the importance of relatability in the internet age. Social media celebrates public figures who portray themselves as normal people, no matter their flaws or past mistakes. When old statuses and pictures pop up as political speed bumps, honesty will only further ingratiate younger candidates with voters.
“The best course of action is explaining that you’ve grown since your mistakes and learned from them,” Van Meter says, “especially when it’s something as simple as a tweet or Facebook post.”