Welcome to the age of the digital inquisition — yet another way for the PC crowd to rule your life

Welcome to the age of the digital inquisition — yet another way for the PC crowd to rule your life. By Lara Prendergast.

A friend of mine at university had a rule: he didn’t want anything to appear online that might ruin a future political career. On nights out, when photos were being taken, he’d quietly move out of the picture. While we were all wittering away to each other on social media, he kept schtum. Strange, I remember thinking. Why so paranoid?

I thought of my friend when Toby Young started making headlines. After Toby was appointed one of the 14 non-executive members of the [UK] Office for Students, he discovered to his cost that his past — preserved as it is online — could be dredged up by those who wanted to sabotage his advancement. The campaign against him worked. The Twitter-storm gathered such strength that it sucked in newspapers and politicians. His old tweets ended up being debated in parliament. The Prime Minister was asked about sentences from articles Toby had written 17 years ago. After eight days of outrage, he resigned. …

Toby has become just the latest — and perhaps the highest-profile — target of a new phenomenon: the digital inquisition. It is something that anyone wanting to enter public life can — and should — expect. As my university friend knew, if you happen to be ambitious in the internet age, you must be very careful about everything you say or do online.

I need not repeat the litany of Toby’s offending tweets. … He has been deliberately provocative. He deployed what Boris Johnson called his ‘caustic wit’ on occasions where silence would have been wiser. Some will consider him beyond the pale; others will be unable to see what the fuss is about. [The hallmark of PC mob justice.] For now, however, the court of social media has passed judgment, and there is no place harsher or more frenetically outraged.

In Toby’s case, a selection of tweets and articles, some dating back over a decade, were cobbled together to present him as a sexist bigot. He had left enough explosive material online to blow up his political ambitions. When he tried to delete his tweets, his detractors were ready. They had already saved everything they considered incriminating. …

Tweets never grow old or die: words published years ago can be reposted, fresh as the day they were typed. Remarks from one context can be republished in another. Online comments can now define and destroy you. …

Social media companies have tricked us all. They have lured us into thinking we can lower our guard online and talk candidly as if to friends. They have coaxed us into blurring personal and private worlds in the name of free speech. We have been led to think our comments are ephemeral when nothing could be further from the truth. Tweets are dashed off, then forgotten about — only to be discovered years later by anyone with a bone to pick. …

This digital trail makes it harder for people to grow up or change path. Toby Young has moved from professional provocateur to education reformer, but the internet remembered his past, and made his political reinvention near impossible. One might have dared hope that, in an era when the capacity to snoop is almost limitless, we would learn to be more forgiving of the failings of others. Instead, the mood is ever more nosey and censorious. …

Politicians, ever anxious about public opinion, are irresistibly drawn to any indications of what people think. They can’t help trying to find the national mood on social media. Sometimes they take their lead from it, seeking Twitter praise or fearing its censure. This makes Twitter’s relatively small band of loud, regular users the most powerful focus group in the world.

This Stephen Neil fellow is going to be in real trouble if he ever runs for anything public.

hat-tip Stephen Neil