The Digital Self: Tomorrow’s politicians are ruining their online reputations today

Anthony Weiner online politics

When you think of former U.S. congressman Anthony Weiner, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?

If you said “penis joke,” you have company. The passionate Democratic politician – who resigned from Congress nearly two years ago, after a young woman blew the whistle on his penchant for tweeting and emailing pictures of Weiner Jr. to women other than his wife – officially announced his candidacy for mayor of New York City last week, via YouTube. And so far, all anyone can talk about is whether voters will look past his throbbing indiscretions and give him a chance at a comeback. Shocker, I know.

It is far too early to tell whether Weiner has a chance at winning NYC. But whatever you think about him running for King of the Big Apple – if you think about it at all – one thing has “certain” scribbled all over it: We will one day see Weiner as a trailblazer for the next generation of politicians; the young men and women who have come of age, and will come of age, with the Internet and all the other tools of embarrassment that come with it.

For us voters, his moonshot for political redemption primes us for a future in which we must constantly decide whether a foolish tweet, damning Facebook photo, or tactless forum joke are enough to disqualify someone from the running.

We must all come to terms with this because many of us who have been online most our lives took far too long to realize exactly how to conduct ourselves on the Web – some of us still haven’t figured it out. We brush aside warnings about a lack of privacy online, and fail to take seriously the maxim “once on the Internet, always on the Internet.” And the kids and teenagers who haven’t yet realized their impending political ambitions have even more to loose.

Many of the politicians currently in office rose to power during an entirely different time. Every whim they had as an angst-riddled teen was not posted for all to see, forever. They could attend a booze-fueled party during their college days without hundreds of photos from the shindig ending up on Facebook. As Google Chairman Eric Schmidt explained at the Telegraph’s Hay Festival on Saturday, “We have never had a generation with a full photographic, digital record of what they did.” 

Now we do. The upcoming generation lacks the luxury of private lives – they are constantly monitored, recorded, tagged, and shared. Who knows how that information could be used against them by future opponents? (The answer, of course, is any way it can be used.)

No matter how conscientious the upcoming generation is, we as a nation are sure to have our share of Weiners.

The good news is that the future leaders of our nation are, on a whole, becoming more cautious about their private information. According to a recent joint study by the Pew Research Center and the Berkman Center for Internet Society, 60 percent of teenagers on Facebook have set their privacy settings to “friends only,” and 57 percent have held back from posting something online because it might make them look bad later. Neither of those statistics is particularly reassuring – but it’s certainly better than the types of privacy steps my friends and I took back in the ICQ and AOL days.

It’s also safe to assume that many (but certainly not all) of the kids that go on to become worthy political leaders have better sense than the majority of their peers. These are the kids that excel at school, volunteer in their free time, devote themselves to sports or music, and are planning from elementary school to become “someone important.” Hopefully this type of diligence also translates into not getting too comfortable with Snapchat.

Then again, one could argue that the failure of future politicians to protect their privacy now benefits us all later. Rather than childhood shenanigans getting swept under the rug, we as a society will have the unprecedented benefit of knowing ash piles of gritty details about candidates – few behaviors, good or bad, will go uncovered. Transparency – intentional or not – disinfects. 

No matter how conscientious the upcoming generation is, we as a nation are sure to have our share of Weiners – those with political ambitions whose recklessness can be easily documented by anyone with quality Google skills. And it will be up to us to decide where we draw the line. Do we render someone unelectable because she once posted a picture of herself taking a bong rip during spring break? Is someone un-American because they once “liked” a Karl Marx Facebook page? This kind of dirt will come up in future elections. It is up to us to decide how much we care. 

Of course, we will likely never trust someone who did exactly what Anthony Weiner did – condemnation of infidelity, digital or otherwise, isn’t going anywhere. But his candidacy does offer us (or New Yorkers, at least) the opportunity to consider how we will handle thoughtless online behavior in the future – because, whether we like it or not, penis pic politics is here to stay.

The views expressed here are solely those of the author and do not reflect the beliefs of Digital Trends.

Emerging Tech

Michigan’s former transportation chief has some advice for wannabe smart cities

After 31 years as Michigan’s transportation director, Kirk Steudle has seen it all, particularly with smart city projects. He spoke with Digital Trends recently about what makes smart cities work, and offers advice along the way.
DT Daily

Hip-hop artist Rakeem Miles talks musical upbringing, ‘Dante’s Toys’

Rakeem Miles may be best known for his musical endeavors, but he's looking to change that with his forthcoming animated show. On Monday's DT Daily, we discuss Miles' origins, what drives his passions, his favorite superhero, and more.
Movies & TV

Out of movies to binge? Our staff picks the best flicks on Hulu right now

From classics to blockbusters, Hulu offers some great films to its subscribers. Check out the best movies on Hulu, whether you're into charming adventure tales or gruesome horror stories.

Here's where Xur is and what he has for wares this week in 'Destiny 2: Forsaken'

The weekly vendor in Destiny 2: Forsaken always brings Exotic weapons and armor, some of the toughest loot to find in the game. Here's everything you need to know to track down Xur: Where he is, when he shows up, and what he's stocking.
Home Theater

I’ve seen the 8K TV future, and you should be excited. Here’s why

Samsung set the tech world on fire when it announced it would sell an 85-inch 8K TV in the U.S. along with several 8K screen sizes in Europe. Debates over the validity and value of such a high resolution have continued since, and we're here…

Inferiority is a feature now! Palm's new plan is psychotic

The Palm is a smartphone to reduce your smartphone usage, or a small smartphone for when you don't want to carry your big smartphone. Palm itself doesn't seem sure which it is, but either way, it's a product that's so witless, we're amazed…
Home Theater

Budget TVs are finally worth buying, and you can thank Roku

Not all that long ago, budget TVs were only worth looking at if, well, you were on a budget. Thanks to Roku, not only are budget TVs now a viable option for anyone, but they might even be a better buy than more expensive TVs.

Huawei and Leica’s monochrome lens is dead, so we celebrate its life

The Huawei Mate 20 and Mate 20 Pro do not have a dedicated monochrome camera lens, unlike the P20 Pro, and various Huawei and Leica phones before it. It's the end of an era, and also the start of a new one, as Leica has worked on its…

Smartphone makers are vomiting a torrent of new phones, and we’re sick of it

Smartphone manufacturers like Huawei, LG, Sony, and Motorola are releasing far too many similar phones. The update cycle has accelerated, but more choice is not always a good thing.

Do we even need 5G at all?

Faster phones, easier access to on-demand video, simpler networking -- on the surface, 5G sounds like a dream. So why is it more of a nightmare?

Razer’s most basic Blade 15 is the one most gamers should buy

Razer's Blade 15 is an awesome laptop for both gamers, streamers, professionals, and anyone else needing serious go in a slim profile, but its price is out of reach for many games. The new Blade 15 Base solves that problem with few…

Going to hell, again. The Switch makes 'Diablo 3' feel brand-new

I've played every version of Diablo 3 released since 2012, racking up hundreds of hours in the process. Six years later, I'm playing it yet again on Nintendo Switch. Somehow, it still feels fresh.
Home Theater

The Apple AirPods 2 needed to come out today. Here are four reasons why

Apple announced numerous new products at its October 30 event, a lineup that included a new iPad Pro, a MacBook Air, as well as a new Mac Mini. Here are four reasons we wish a new set of AirPods were on that list.

‘Fallout 76’ is nothing like ‘World of Warcraft,’ and that’s for the best

"Is Fallout 76 an MMO?" That depends on who you ask. Critics and players often cite its online multiplayer capabilities as a reason it qualifies. Yet calling the game an MMO only confuses matters, and takes away from what could make…