Nova Scotia

Candidates are scrubbing their digital pasts, but is that ethical?

Some candidates running for office have taken to erasing unwanted bits of their online history, while some political hopefuls shut down social media accounts. But is it the ethical thing to do?

'I see it more as people trying to erase mistakes ... as opposed to totally trying to reinvent themselves'

Some political candidates are deleting their past comments on social media, or in some cases, getting rid of accounts entirely to better control their image. (Ink Drop/Shutterstock)

A little editing here and a bit of deleting there, some candidates running for office have taken to scrubbing away unwanted bits of their online history, while some political hopefuls shut down social media accounts.

But is that ethical?

"Of course candidates are going to want to clean their Twitter up before they completely defeat their own chances of being elected," said Lori Turnbull, a Dalhousie University professor who studies political ethics and is director of the university's School of Public Administration.

Last week, racist and sexist tweets from Sydney-Victoria Liberal candidate Jaime Battiste were unearthed by the Toronto Sun. Soon after, Battiste locked down his @youngmedicine33 Twitter account, not allowing public access. Since then, he appears to have deleted the account. His official Liberal Party account, @JaimeBattiste, is still up and running.

Last year, provincial Progressive Conservative candidate Andrew Lawton admitted he deleted racist, homophobic tweets three years before he decided to run in the Ontario election, yet those tweets still came back to haunt him. He said in an interview last year that those tweets no longer represented his views. He did not win the riding of London West.

Turnbull said a little nip and tuck of a candidate's online image is to be expected.

Jaime Battiste is the Liberal candidate in Sydney-Victoria. He appears to have deleted the Twitter account where he made sexist and racist tweets. (Gary Mansfield/CBC)

She said candidates want to clear out any comments or posts they made that could reflect badly on them and might not match up with their current beliefs. 

"I think we are doing this throughout life, it's not just politicians," said Turnbull. "[We do it] when we apply for a job, when we meet a new person, whatever the case may be. We're all Googling each other."

"I see it more as people trying to erase mistakes they've made as opposed to totally trying to reinvent themselves."

She said there's no point for a politician to keep a tweet or social media post up if it doesn't reflect how they feel now.

Bill Capes, a People's Party of Canada candidate in Ontario, disabled his Twitter account after racist, transphobic tweets he made were uncovered. (People's Party Website)

Turnbull said if someone is trying to erase a one-time mistake, it's "almost understandable why someone would do that. They're running because they want to win."

But Turnbull said this online editing crosses a line when candidates start erasing vast swaths of their online communications on social media or other platforms.

Cape Breton University political science professor Tom Urbaniak agrees with her. He said if a candidate has deleted chunks of their public social media posts or online interactions, then voters need to start asking some serious questions. 

"What have you culled? What have your views been in the past? Even if your views have since evolved. And how can we be sure that what you are standing on now is what you legitimately espouse?" said Urbaniak.

Tom Urbaniak is a political science professor at Cape Breton University. (Tom Ayers/CBC)

There's also tremendous pressure on candidates to make sure their online presence is close to spotless, said Turnbull. She said if some candidates are deleting problematic posts, others may feel forced to do so as well or else they could look bad.

Urbaniak believes some parties may even tell their candidates which items they want removed.

Despite the deleting and extensive vetting, many candidates have been dropped after their past online posts were unearthed.

After the federal election is over, Urbaniak believes parties will examine how they vet potential candidates, how candidates construct a public profile and discuss ways to deal with revelations about candidates dug up from old social media posts.

But he doesn't want parties to force future candidates to sanitize their backgrounds. 

"I hope we don't get to the point where candidates are locking down everything, that they're rewriting their entire past out of history, simply so they can almost be like automatons for their parties," said Urbaniak.

He said a dynamic and sincere political process needs candidates to passionately represent their area's interests, and that means they need to have a history, blemishes and all.

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About the Author

David Burke

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David Burke is a reporter in Halifax who covers everything from politics to science. His reports have been featured on The National, World Report and As it Happens, as well as the Information Morning shows in Halifax and Cape Breton.

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